My Lords, it is our custom at the beginning of every sitting of this House to pray for the,
“peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same”.
That is a prayer for a strong partnership between government and civil society, an idea whose time has come as we seek to respond to the threefold crises of our day—the financial crisis and its economic effects, which have sharply reduced the status and confidence of market liberalism; the ecological crisis, of which the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is but a symptom; and the crisis of political confidence in this country, focusing particularly on the expenses scandal. Taken together, these give us a remarkable moment of opportunity: to set our sights high and ask ourselves how civil society can shape our world and how, in the words of the Carnegie commission’s report, we can make a,
“transition from an age of ‘me’ to an age of ‘we’”,
“the idea that we do best when we work with others, and when we understand our interests as shared with others”.
I look forward enormously to the rich variety of experience and understanding which I know this House will bring to this debate and especially to the maiden speech by noble Lord, Lord Wei, with his rich experience at Teach First and the Shaftesbury Partnership, which gives him a key role in this House and in this Government as an adviser on this very subject. This kind of exploration is exactly right for us, because if these are indeed early days for “new politics”, we need every opportunity we can muster to think together what this new politics is about.
When the Prime Minister spoke recently about,
“Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging … for community engagement and social renewal”,
he prompted us to ask: what kind of Government and what kind of political culture best serves that renewal? What kind of responsibilities can properly be transferred to active citizens? What kind of capacity building does such transfer require? What are the characteristics of an engaged society? How much trust and readiness to divest itself of central control does that require of a new coalition beginning to acquire familiarity with the levers of power? In short, what does the shorthand of the “Big Society” really mean for us? Are those who suspect this agenda of being little more than a veil to cover the rapid reduction of the state’s responsibilities right to be concerned, or is there a new rich model of society waiting to be discovered from which many may benefit?
It is upon these questions among others that I hope and expect our debate to touch. The Carnegie commission makes the telling point that:
“Liberal democracy is a three-legged stool—though, at present, it’s a pretty wobbly stool. One leg is government, providing public capital. Another the market, providing market capital. And the third, civil society, providing social capital. To get things back in balance, the third leg needs strengthening”.
By “civil society” I refer to what we might call associational life, where people come together voluntarily for actions that lie beyond government or for-private-profit business, including voluntary and community associations, trade unions, faith-based organisations and co-operatives. Civil society is grounded in values such as social justice, solidarity, mutuality and sustainability. It operates in the public sphere in which people and organisations discuss the nature of their cities, their neighbourhoods and their communities and find ways of reconciling differences.
I am proud that we find such a rich kaleidoscope of these values and associations in my own city of Leicester. Nearly 500 faith-based voluntary organisations represent the hugely diverse religious traditions of that city. Their work is often among the most hard-to-reach groups: the elderly and isolated Afro-Caribbean or south Asian communities, the young, single parents, victims of violence, discharged prisoners, substance abusers, the homeless, asylum seekers and others. The list is remarkable for its range but also for the fact that, in this humanitarian work, our values coalesce more often than not. This work stands as a witness to the fact that our faith communities are not to be regarded as awkward, angular, divergent and prone to conflict but rather the reverse: as vital to social cohesion and the building of strong communities.
That is why the Faith Leaders Forum in Leicester finds common cause repeatedly and why we have been so pleased to have established the St Philip’s Centre in our city, of which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I am so pleased to see in his place today, is the patron. This is one of two national centres for training those who work in multi-faith areas and for preparing secular agencies, especially the police, teachers and health professionals, for work in such areas.
This work illuminates some fundamental principles of civil society—that capacity-building is a two-way street, that the public sector needs this voluntary sector expertise for its own effectiveness and that this is true for all the socially and religiously diverse populations of our largest cities. Further, this work does not come on the cheap. As the state contracts, civil society will not automatically expand to take up the slack. It will require the most careful research and sensitive investment from government as the grant crunch follows the credit crunch and vital components of the big society begin to shrink, just when they are more needed than ever.
You would expect those on these Benches to argue for stronger communities and stronger intermediate institutions, since for too many decades the institutions that have stood between the individual and the state have tended to be eroded or neglected. But this is how the Church has always understood itself—as a community bound together by a shared story and expressed most clearly in localities: urban, rural and suburban. That is why Members on this Bench are to be found engaged with local strategic partnerships, community foundations, police authorities, school and university governing bodies, the new deal for communities—the list is almost endless. That is why we believe that, despite an increasingly individualistic culture and the many ways in which our lives are characterised by flux more than permanency, people still find their identity to a large extent in communities, whether brought together by beliefs or location or their shared understanding of what makes for a good life. These communities need the scope to develop ways of life that are consistent with their values. Here is the rub; promoting a community of communities means encouraging the flourishing of communities with which I may disagree or even those that I may not be able to understand. It means granting a degree of autonomy to those with whom we have active differences. That has presented real challenges to contemporary Governments. The point is that the big society stands as a challenge to the centripetal tendencies to which all Governments can fall prey.
Let me be more specific. For example, the voluntary sector has played a crucial role in facilitating adoptions. However, as the Catholic Church has recently discovered, a culture of individual choice has skewed the adoption process towards the rights of the prospective parents in a way that precludes the Catholic Church from running its agencies in a manner that is congruent with its beliefs about the best interests of children. Does a big society have room to accommodate that sort of distinctiveness? I use that example not necessarily to endorse the Catholic position but to point to what is in jeopardy if the ethical motivations of our neighbours are defined too tightly by government that seeks to colonise the public square.
A further example might be the citizen-organising movement, of which London Citizens is the best known example. Much of the rhetoric of the big society refers to the need to train thousands more community organisers: as the Prime Minister put it recently:
“To teach potential community organisers how to identify the doers and the go-getters in each neighbourhood and recruit them to their cause”.
We shall see how that works out. I speak as a trustee of the Citizen Organising Foundation. The fact is that active citizens, the doers and go-getters, are people with strong convictions, beliefs and principles that cannot and will not be recruited to government priorities and programmes. Indeed, the United States’ experience would suggest that they will often empower communities to become truculent and unbiddable.
We begin to see the range of questions that we hope the Minister will have some opportunity to address in responding to this debate. In a brief introduction I cannot hope to produce an exhaustive list of issues for us, but I shall mention the questions of most concern. First, how will this Government handle the hitherto inflexible adherence to the need for solid, quantifiable evidence in evaluating policy and practice in the voluntary sector? Needless to say, some have been cynical about the previous Government’s actual adherence to this, some calling it policy that had evidence sprayed on to it or cherrypicking the evidence to suit their political priorities. This is a crucial point if the proposal is to devolve service delivery to the local level.
Secondly, in an area of central concern to the Church of England, how are we to understand the effects of new government education policies on our understanding of civil society? The Church’s engagement with formal education has its roots in a passionate concern for the poor and derives from a vision of the kingdom in which all may flourish. The test for all education policies is therefore surely whether they encourage partnerships throughout the system in classrooms, between schools and across sectors.
Thirdly, in local government, how far is the coalition prepared to go in reducing the extent to which local politics has become an arm of national policy? We have all seen the consequences in public disengagement from local democracy, low turnouts and cynicism. Can the new politics extend to relaxing this stranglehold, even when the result may be that some authorities neglect the sacred national targets imposed from Westminster? These are areas where political courage and vision will be needed if the partnership between government and civil society is to prosper.
A new kind of partnership is possible, and indeed crucial: one that is not based on an abdication of the state’s responsibilities but accompanied by an understanding that a real, not cosmetic, devolution of power will be required, together with an end to the kind of control that reduces volunteers to the status of unpaid servants of a centralised state. The qualities of altruism and selflessness upon which local action depends are forged not by the state but by the numerous communities and networks in which people discover who they are through common bonds with others. They need room to breathe.
We may in the past have allowed our politics to slip from the laudable aim of ensuring that no one is excluded from participating in wider society into an assumption that this entails uniformity. A community of diverse communities, such as my own diocese, will never meet imposed criteria of managerial neatness but will better reflect the way that people actually live. If we are to move away from the emphasis on managerialism, there may now be an opening for a new and vibrant politics in which policies are framed with a better grasp of the hopes, fears, values and concerns with which people really live.
In essence, the big society is surely an intangible network of trust and reciprocity, without which even the most rudimentary interactions cannot occur. Society is organic, not official. It cannot be established by law or fiat. It is delicate and needs an uninvasive, uncontrolling state that values, understands and strengthens the voluntary bonds between people. My hope is that this debate in your Lordships’ House will strengthen the understanding of those bonds and their place in the new politics of our day.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for calling this debate and for his most thoughtful, analytical and challenging opening speech. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
The call from the Government for a big society represents one of the most fundamental changes to the future way in which this country is governed and a change that I believe is urgently needed if we are to achieve,
“the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm”,
already mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and for which we pray at the start of business each day in this House.
I begin by paying tribute to my right honourable friend Dr Oliver Letwin who, as a well-educated Cambridge philosopher of course, first articulated and argued the intellectual framework for the big society, which he called—I like the name—“the neighbourly society”. Letwin describes the relationship between government and civil society as,
“Government helping to sustain a society that is a rich tapestry of active citizens, families, places of worship, dedicated professions and independent associations”.
That is a vision which I celebrate and embrace. It marks the fundamental difference in the philosophy and vision of the world between those of the left in politics and those of the right. In the far-off days when I used to teach students philosophy, I used to describe both socialism and the freedom and responsibility of individuals as equal though opposite views of how the world should be. I still believe that to be true in the sense that socialism is an honourable ideal—intellectually valid and immensely appealing, especially to the idealistic young. I speak as one who tried to join the Communist Party when I was 16. Fortunately, my father found my application form and threw it in the fire.
Socialism, in however watered-down its current form, still teaches, and, by its actions promulgates, the belief that the state is the answer to all society's needs—that politicians, bureaucrats, committees, national tsars and state initiatives can cure all ills and provide for the needs of all its citizens. But the history of the past 50 years and more has shown, perhaps sadly, that across the world this view of society has utterly failed. Millions queued for the barest necessities of life in the Soviet Union. Millions in China lived a life of abject poverty. A divided Germany demonstrated in the sharpest relief the difference in the lives of those living under socialism and those in the free West.
Here in our own country, 13 years of a Labour Government who shared that belief in the state have left us with 5 million households living on state benefit, 2.5 million people out of work and a gap between rich and poor, successful schools and failing schools, the unbelievably inflated property wealth of the few and what the journalist Will Hutton described as the “living tomb” of the sink estate. Inequalities of access to health and so many more aspects of a good life all demonstrate that reliance on the state has not worked.
What is the alternative? It is for the state to support communities and individuals to enable them to have control of their lives. Of course, the state must be there to take care of those who are genuinely unable to take of themselves or others. But for the vast majority of those in society, government should stand back and allow families and small communities, villages, local streets, professions, trade unions, universities and charities the freedom to manage their lives and their immediate communities.
I quote Oliver Letwin again:
“Society is characterised by a complex network of professional, voluntary and involuntary relationships. Professional relationships like a GP’s relationship with his or her patients. Voluntary relationships like a mentor’s care for an at-risk young person. And then involuntary … relationships, like a mother’s love for her son”.
But it is worse than the failure of the economic strategies. My biggest concern is what reliance on the state as the answer to everything has done to civil society. It disempowers people and threatens individual initiative and creativity.
One moment of my own political education came many years ago when my husband and I were living on the Canadian prairies. Our tiny township—five grain elevators, 23 houses, a village shop, a church and school—was completely cut off from our nearest town each year when the snow thawed and the dirt road became impassable. Down at the curling rink one evening, I complained. Like a true Brit, I said, “It’s a disgrace. They should do something about it. They should build us a proper road”. A puzzled silence greeted my remark. One of the guys finally said, “Pauline, who’s ‘them’?”. Again, like a true Brit, I said, “Well, government, I suppose—central government or the provincial government”. There was another silence. One man then leant forward gently and said, “Pauline, around here, them’s us. If we want a road, we build it”. The philosophy of “them’s us” sums up the spirit which I deeply admire wherever it is to be found. It is the heart of the politics I cherish.
Reliance on the state has also removed for many the incentive to provide for themselves and their family. We have all too many families in this country who have never seen anyone go to work, perhaps in some cases for as many as three generations. There are whole housing estates where fewer than 10 per cent of adults are in work. When state benefits are so attractive, why bother to work? This is not a healthy society. Even more, though, I fear the way in which reliance on the state has destroyed trust. More and more, we have seen over the past 13 years how the judgment of professionals has been undermined by the assumption that the state and its bureaucrats know best; and how state-imposed targets, volumes of legislation and notes of guidance have replaced a trust in the professional judgment of judges, teachers, doctors, social workers and many others in the professions.
In her excellent Reith Lectures a few years ago, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, spoke of the decline of trust in our society. She quoted Confucius, who said that three things are needed for good government—weapons, food and trust. If a ruler cannot hold on to all three he should give up the weapons first and the food next, but hold on to trust to the end. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, spoke of a crisis of trust and what she called a “culture of suspicion”. This, I fear, is the culture that the previous Government have imposed. Anyone who has taught children and young people will tell you that suspicion and overmonitoring simply result in children who behave well when the teacher is looking but run riot as soon as her back is turned. Such children have not learnt to take responsibility; nor have they internalised the need for the rules and regulations. Drivers on the North Circular—who face speed cameras every mile or so—demonstrate to me every week as I drive on it that not only children behave in this way.
The alternative must be for the state to help and sustain the communities which make up civil society. While providing still for those most vulnerable and unable to help themselves, the state should support from below, empowering individuals and communities to care for themselves; to be good and considerate neighbours; to care for their neighbourhood and its facilities; to say, “What can I do about this?” or “Let’s do this”, rather than, “Why don’t the Government do something about this?”. Communities that have taken control of their environment and collective lives have found immense satisfaction, new friendships and a sense of pride and purpose in what they do.
This new relationship of government and civil society is indeed a partnership but it is a partnership of equals. Nanny does not know best. Those closest to the problem will know best how to solve it. Communities given power and support by the Government will benefit directly from finding solutions unique to them, rather than having to accept the one size fits all from the centre. In this partnership, citizens must accept that they have responsibilities as well as rights and that the state or the Government cannot and should not give us everything we need and want. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, put it:
“The passive culture of human rights suggests that we can sit back and wait for others to deliver our entitlements. I suggest that if we really want human rights we have to act and to meet our duties to one another”.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important issues. I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for providing us with the opportunity for this timely and important debate. As a non-executive board member of the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, situated in the right reverend Prelate’s diocese, I have personal knowledge of his enormous commitment to partnership working with a view to improving access to services for the poorest and most disadvantaged communities. I add my welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, and look forward to his maiden speech. I am sure that his passion, work and extensive knowledge of this area will serve the House well over the years.
Promoting effective engagement and partnerships between the statutory sector and the community and voluntary sector, including the churches and faith and non-faith organisations, has been at the heart of my entire professional life, so I greatly welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as this is something about which I have a great deal of experience and, I hope, a little expertise. Together with colleagues at the research centre that I managed for many years, and with communities across the country, I have worked to develop effective models to build stronger communities—not expert-led models but community-led models, as they are the only ones that can truly tell us what works.
I take just one example from hundreds. Thanks to the Department of Health funding provided by the new Labour Government, we undertook a series of community engagement programmes across the country to assess the needs of black and minority ethnic communities around their use of illegal substances. This involved establishing and supporting a huge network of more than 400 black and minority ethnic groups and what might be termed “vulnerable groups” from the voluntary and community sector. That programme had some real and sustainable achievements, which were subject to a number of external evaluations. For example, more than 3,000 members of local communities were trained and supported in a range of engagement activities, while some 60,000 community members were engaged and consulted, leading to a sustainable impact on services through these community engagement programmes.
While I may not have been talking about the big society, something about which we have heard a lot over recent weeks and months, I feel that I have been doing something more important—actually doing things to bring it about. Despite all the talk, there seem to be few people who can say what the big society means. Indeed, this was evident throughout the election campaign. Let me therefore help the Government out by finding a definition that we can all understand. The big society is simply another way of telling people about the well established and crucial work done across the country by small and large voluntary and community organisations, self-help groups and neighbourhood actions, enabled and assisted by local government and a range of central government departments—indeed, much of the work that so many noble Lords are involved in. If I am wrong about this, will the Minister, whom I congratulate on her position on the Front Bench, give us a precise and practical definition of what the big society is, not just something that is opposed to something called the “big state”? How does it differ from what I have described?
Given my history, I of course wholeheartedly welcome the emphasis placed on involving communities and individuals in service delivery and decision-making. However, this is not a new planet that has just been discovered by astronomers. Rather, it is an example of the wisdom of the old adage, “There is nothing new under the sun”—or, to use another everyday phrase, which will no doubt be familiar to the Minister, “It is motherhood and apple pie”, and it will take a great deal more than talk to deliver it.
However, this Government will benefit hugely from the fact that they have not started with a blank sheet, as many great advances were made under the new Labour Government in this area, not only through projects in which I was directly involved, such as funding the community engagement programme, of which I have spoken, but a great many others, such as promoting participatory budgeting. That is an important process, which directly involves local people in making decisions on spending priorities. That is always important but never more so than now as we face the consequences of the £6.2 billion of in-year cuts recently announced by the Government.
These initiatives were not random but part of a coherent strategy set out in the White Paper Communities in Control, which set out for the first time to give people a greater and very practical voice in influencing change. Why, therefore, given the recent discovery of the big society, do the Government simply not commit to the principles and programmes of that White Paper, which was widely consulted on, and to developments such as Total Place, which proposes a radical reshaping of the services through place-based area budgets? The key partnership initiative was drawn up with local government and across government. It was a promising plan to join together local services and public bodies such as the police, councils and the NHS, not only to save money but radically to improve services, making them more personalised and more effective. It was starting to show how much waste and unnecessary bureaucracy come from multiple public bodies trying to achieve the same goal, leading to inefficiency and duplication without improving the lives of local people.
Despite the obvious agreement at local level among authorities and communities about the benefits of Total Place, I have not found mention of it in the programme for government and subsequent announcements. I therefore ask the Minister in her summing up to take this opportunity to guarantee to the House that the Total Place initiative, which has the potential to be a key framework for delivering effective local partnerships between government and civil society, has not been abandoned. If the Minister is unable to give us that assurance, I fear that the ground made under the previous Government in breaking down silos may be lost and that we risk having services that are inefficient and cost more as a result, at a time when we as a society—particularly poor and disadvantaged areas within our society—can least afford it. This strategic, joined-up approach is vital because, whatever words we choose to describe them—big society, citizen empowerment, community engagement—these good things are not easy to achieve. In developing our community engagement model, we encountered and had to use creativity and innovation to overcome a number of difficult and sometimes incredibly frustrating situations—for example, by establishing partnerships, creating trust, finding the best agency for delivery and finding and sustaining funding.
At the risk of using another cliché, I say that the devil will be in the detail. If my experience in this area has taught me anything, it is that achieving effective community engagement can be done only with adequate investment in those communities. Early in the life of the new Labour Government, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Joined-up Places? Social Cohesion and Neighbourhood Regeneration observed:
“There’s a lot of money to be made from poor people as long as you don’t pay them to do it”.
It was precisely that situation that I and others working in this field sought to address and to which we have no desire to return. In developing our model of community engagement, we found that a number of key ingredients are necessary for effectiveness and sustainability. They include capacity building, through the provision of regular support, training—especially accredited training—and, crucially, appropriate resources. The role taken by the Government and the investment that they are prepared to put into enabling that to happen in helping to bring into being the big society will therefore be absolutely crucial. For example, volunteering, by which the Government also set much store, does not come cheap.
The Prime Minister, in what I must say was a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech last November, described the role of government in this regard. He said that it was,
“galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal”,
“families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems”.
The programme for government gives a certain amount of detail on what this means in practice. I should like to highlight three key aims. First, on giving public sector workers the right to come together in employee-owned co-operatives to bid to take over the services that they deliver, I ask the Minister: how does this sit alongside the Government’s plans to reduce the public sector? To whom will they be accountable for quality and distribution and access to services? Secondly, on giving communities more information—for example, about local crime statistics—what would the Government want the community to do with such statistics? Thirdly, on more powers—for example, over decisions about planning and the closure of local services, and the right to bid to take over local statutory services—how will this affect the provision of affordable homes in the south-east or rural areas? Will it not simply encourage nimbyism?
The Prime Minister lists a number of practical steps to support these aims, including training community organisers; supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups; launching a national big society day; making regular community involvement a key element of Civil Service staff appraisals; establishing a programme enabling 16 year-olds to develop skills and start getting involved in their communities; and establishing a big society bank to provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies, supporting them to have greater involvement in the running of public services. I would not wish to criticise these aims or, indeed, any one of these practical steps. The question is rather whether this is what the big society adds up to—aspiration rather than practical investment and the sort of support and infrastructure that can really change things. I question whether the package is sufficient to achieve the transformational change that the Government are seeking, especially against a background of 20 per cent, or even higher, cuts, which we are told will be borne by local government and local services. If so much social innovation, social resilience and social service is now to be carried by social enterprise, can the Minister tell me precisely how much will be invested? Who will do the work? Where will the social entrepreneurs come from and how will they be trained, supported and sustained? That will be the practical test of an idea of which we all approve and want to see in practice.
As I said, I have major concerns in relation to the devil being in the detail. My right honourable friend the Member for Salford and Eccles, who, like me, has believed in and worked towards this agenda throughout her career and wishes to be a constructive critic, set out in another place last week three key tests for the Government in relation to their programme to achieve the big society: first, whether there is adequate funding; secondly, whether a proper framework will be established not only at national but also at local level; and, thirdly, fairness, such as whether capacity will be built in poorer communities to enable those living there, as well as those in more affluent areas, to step forward and take positions of responsibility. I echo my right honourable friend’s constructive comments and ask the Minister to give us more information, if she is able to, in relation to these three tests of funding, the national and local framework, and fairness.
To illustrate those points further, I shall focus on two of the practical steps described in the programme for government document: training community organisers and the establishment of the big society bank. In her response, can the Minister outline the following for the House? First, how many community organisers will there be and how will the Government ensure that they reflect the full spectrum of the society in which we live? How will they differ from community development officers in terms of professionalism, support and impact? What are they expected to do and how will they be paid?
Secondly, how much money will be allocated to the big society bank? Who will run this and ensure fairness? To whom will it be accountable? How will groups access funds from the bank? What steps will be taken to ensure that this is an inclusive process—how will the community and voluntary sector be involved in the decision-making process? What will the criteria be for selecting those who benefit from these opportunities and who will set and monitor the criteria? What assurance will we have that all groups—and I mean all groups, even those at the margins—will have an opportunity to access these funds?
On that last point, my experience over many years certainly tells me that most of the creative, innovative and successful work happens with local groups who are at the grass-roots level and who, on occasion, are not able to have the resources, expertise or information to submit a comprehensive grant application. Can the Minister tell us what pre-application support, advice and information will be given to these groups to ensure that the usual suspects do not simply receive all the funds? On the key test of fairness, even in these early days there have been some worrying signs that the big society could break down quite quickly.
Loath as I am to criticise a fellow Yorkshireman, I am, to put it mildly, not encouraged by the decisions made so far by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Despite the rhetoric of devolving decision-making downwards, he has made decisions on the hoof without consultation, dictating to councils from his desk in Whitehall on a range of issues. This has included ordering them to put spending information online without consultation on cost or on how this should be done; stopping councils choosing whether to trial different ways of managing waste recycling by stopping pay-as-you-throw pilots; and trying to block Exeter and Norwich councils having more control over running services in their cities, leading to the Government’s first defeat in this place. As I have mentioned, he has let local services and local government bear the brunt of the 20 per cent or higher cuts in the £6.2 billion package of cuts. Recent figures released by his department show that it is cities, struggling seaside towns, former industrial towns and former coalfield areas that will be bearing the brunt of those cuts.
Rather than being targeted through a formula grant, which all councils receive, the cuts are being targeted through area-based and specific grants. In the main, these fund specific programmes in particular areas. Examples of programmes being hit by the cuts are: Supporting People, which gives vulnerable people the opportunity to live more independently—for example, helping elderly people to remain in their own homes; cohesion programmes to tackle all forms of extremism, such as the Connecting Communities programme in mainly white working-class areas, which has been entirely cut; and the working neighbourhoods fund, which tackles worklessness in areas of high unemployment.
I take an example from my own patch. We were proud to be one of the first NHS trusts in Leicester to take up the future jobs fund challenge, having employed several people with mental health problems in the first wave. Owing to the abolition of the future jobs fund by the Government, I am saddened that plans for further posts this year, including those for people with learning disabilities, have had to be cancelled. Clearly, this is hurting the most disadvantaged, the most deserving and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It may be easy for us to stand in this House and talk about the big society and big sums of money, but such individuals are having to live with the reality of decisions made by this Government today.
The Government have rightly emphasised the importance of transparency and the power of information. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give us some guarantees that vulnerable people, who would be affected if these cuts went through, will be protected and to detail how the Government propose to monitor and to report regularly to this House the impact of the package of spending cuts on local government and local services, including the impact not only on different geographical areas but on particular spending programmes and population groups.
I am most concerned about that issue in today’s discussion. It is highly relevant to the serious financial decisions that are being made, which will have the most profound effect on those who have the least ability to fight back or to represent their own interests, not because they are somehow incapable or broken but because we simply do not listen enough. I passionately believe that our society is not broken; the thousands of committed individuals and groups that I have encountered in my work over the years have persuaded me of that. However, I believe that we need to continue to strive to fix the relationship between the political class or the public sector—call it what you will—and local communities. This situation will be exacerbated if cuts are unfair in their effects. Rather than demonstrating that we are all in this together, these cuts will hit hardest those who can least afford it, the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of our society.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on securing this debate. It could not be more timely, as the new Administration begin to put in place a new strategy for shaping and delivering social policy. I apologise for missing the first minute or two of his introduction, but the quality of the greater part which I did hear was sufficient to show what an impressive introduction it was. I also welcome the Minister to her position on the Front Bench and, like the rest of us, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
The current fiscal environment demands that social policy and public services are recast to take account of the new economic reality, but the questions and challenges that that poses are immense. Not only is the scale of these issues already very significant, but, as the full effects of the recession play out, it will continue to grow. The Government are now looking at a situation where they will have to do much more with far less. Speaking as an advocate for the voluntary sector, I believe that must ensure value for money, efficiency and effectiveness of services in order to extract the maximum utility that we can from each pound of public spend. As a result, we must ensure that the policy frameworks around which those services are constructed are as focused and as appropriate as we can make them. I believe that civil society is in a unique position to help the Government to create those frameworks. The expertise and knowledge of the sector, whose strengths need to be harnessed, are an invaluable resource for the Government.
The Government’s big society agenda may well be able to provide at least a partial answer in meeting those problems. However, doing so requires recognition of the fact that building the big society needs not just civic action but organised civic action; that is to say, civil society organisations with business nous and financial capacity and a smart, strategic state working in genuine partnership with the sector. The danger that we face is a state that simply retrenches and leaves the big society to pick up the pieces.
There are two clear planks in the Government’s vision for a big society: empowered communities and more public services delivered by citizen-focused civil society organisations. Those ambitions are not without their history. The boundaries between what is done by the state and what is done by the voluntary sector have shifted backwards and forwards over the centuries. The state made a major advance in the 20th century, but it is now definitely in retreat. How headlong that retreat will prove to be is perhaps under negotiation, even as we speak. Over the past decade, there has been a growing political consensus on the strengths that civil society organisations bring to public services. Increasing levels of impact reporting are now formally demonstrating the immense value that the sector brings to shaping social policy and delivering services.
The key strength that the sector provides in shaping policy is in the role of the provider advocate. Due to the close nature of their relationship with their beneficiaries, civil society organisations are able to shape their services around individual need, and can then translate the lessons learnt from practice into policy. That exercise can be successful only when relationships of trust and mutuality exist—something which civil society is streets ahead of other sectors in creating. That knowledge must be used and applied by government in the design of effective social policy.
A major question is: how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be? How, practically, is the big society to be built, especially at a time when the state’s capacity will be hampered by massive public spending cuts? One thing is clear: success will depend to a large degree on the extent to which civic action can organise itself. Informal civil action—mutual support between family members and friends, for example—is the bedrock of our society, but clearly there are limits to what can be done through such informal activity
If you want volunteers helping children to read in school, reformed ex-offenders mentoring those released from prison to prevent reoffending or volunteers providing the elderly with company and conversation, you will need civil society organisations to manage and organise those volunteers. You will need those organisations to be efficient, professional and well led. If you want civil society organisations to deliver more public services, especially at a time when spending cuts mean that you also want efficiencies of scale and to pay providers only once they have achieved results, you will need those organisations to be businesslike, capable of scaling up and able to access working capital.
Furthermore, if you want civil society to shape policy, there will need to be formal conduits through which information and evidence of the impact of civic action can be collected, analysed and evaluated. Formalised organisations and networks are not necessarily a sign of inefficiency or waste. Infrastructure, both capital and organisational, is an important way of gaining efficiency, collating data and sharing best practice. It is imperative that that aspect is not ignored by the Government if they are truly keen on a big society.
How is civil society meeting those challenges? Consolidation is an obvious response to the need for greater cost-effectiveness. That is beginning to happen, still too tentatively, in a sector deeply imbued with traditions of organisational pride, but I predict that it will grow. Diversity is a good thing, but you can have too much of it. In the world of the visually impaired, which, as vice-president of the RNIB, I know a bit about, there are no fewer than 733 charities. The RNIB thus performs an invaluable service for government by bringing together the entire impairment sector—not just charities but the statutory sector as well, eye health and social care professionals and users of eye care services—around a UK vision strategy. That sets out a shared agenda which gives government and others a coherent and expert view of what the sector needs.
That both points to and facilitates a second requirement: partnership from the state. As David Cameron has said, building a big society will require a smart, strategic state, not one that simply retrenches. It will require a state that is proactive in supporting civil society—for instance, by acting fast to set up a big society bank. It will require a state that works with us in the sector to define the contours of the big society. Above all, it will require a state that does not think, even at the back of its mind, that the sector can simply pick up the pieces for free when the state decides to do less. It cannot, it will not, and in every sense the Government would pay a heavy price for believing the opposite.
Civil society organisations such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations have campaigned vigorously for the Government to take a mature partnership approach in policy formation. I believe that this is an offer that we should seize with both hands, particularly over the coming months when it will be critical to bring out the best in both sectors. Already the Government have courted controversy by ending the future jobs fund, an effective scheme devised by the third sector for producing real, long-term jobs, and the perverse decision to replace futurebuilders loans with grants. Dangerously, backward-looking councils have already started cutting grants to voluntary organisations. The sector and government must do more to work together in creating more positive social outcomes. Both sides are realistic and know that cuts in spending are coming, but a partnership approach in policy and delivery can ensure the least damage to vital front-line services. We should not underestimate this challenge, and now is no time to be romantic. However, I believe that a meaningful partnership between government and civil society is a vital plank in developing a more effective and appropriate social policy.
My Lords, I must begin with an apology to your Lordships for the fact that an inflexible diary means that I must infringe the convention of this House by not being able to guarantee that I shall be here at the end of this debate. I am truly sorry for that, but I wish to be here to support my right reverend brother and to congratulate him on securing this significant debate, and I am eager to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
As has already been said, this is a timely debate. We are at a point where a debate about the nature of citizenship is perhaps more important than it has been for a century or more. To engage in such a debate about the nature of citizenship is also, and inevitably, to open the door to a deeper debate, that is no less necessary, about the very nature of how we define the human person. We have begun to learn that being a citizen is not simply a matter of being an abstract or passive possessor of certain claims or rights. A citizen is not simply someone who votes. A citizen is someone who exercises active political virtue.
The state does not, of course, make people virtuous, but it would be a great mistake to deduce from that axiom that the state therefore has no interest in the business of virtue. The state protects us from acts that outrage human dignity. The state is able to conduct its business on the assumption that citizens will know their business. Rights in the law are there to safeguard dignity, but that dignity does not look after itself. The state and the law need something more than statutory enactment alone to give substance to how we regard one another and to what is owed to one another. The state requires communities in which human beings are taken seriously in certain ways. At the very simplest level, as we have already been reminded, that grows out of the mutual recognition within manageable communities and within relations and transactions that my neighbour’s interests are comparable to my own. It grows out of that most basic of all social institutions: promise keeping. At its fullest, it grows out of a sense of the depth and multidimensionality of the human person, which takes me back to my opening point about how discussion of citizenship opens out into discussion of the human person.
If all that sounds very abstract, let me illustrate with a story from my experience. During my time working in the Church in Wales, I was privileged to be a witness to and, on one or two occasions, involved in the life of a community in the Rhondda valley called Penrhys. It was probably the most deprived of the many deprived council estates in the Rhondda. It was a community scarred by third-generation unemployment and by the general sense that it was the place where people who had been forgotten by every imaginable statutory authority had been left to rot.
John Morgans, Moderator of the United Reformed Church in Wales, retired from his post of ecclesiastical leadership to go and live on the Penrhys estate with his family. Over a couple of decades he built up a unique and extraordinary partnership on the Penrhys estate: Penrhys New Perspectives. During that time the partnership which he created was able to engage in a programme to create 100 new small businesses. It was able to open an effective health centre on an estate which hitherto had had none. It was able to work with the grain of a community which hardly knew it was a community until someone was there with a level of commitment and patience that enabled people to see themselves afresh.
The difference that was made in that context had everything to do with the patience that John Morgans and his associates showed, because it takes time to discover that you are a community. One of the greatest difficulties which we have faced in this area in the past couple of decades has, of course, very often been a regime of funding for projects in such contexts that has been experienced as brutally short term. I would like to leave with your Lordships, and especially with the Minister, the question of whether that should be reviewed as a matter of urgency as we move forward.
It is not only about funding regimes and short-termism; it is precisely about the presence of certain people in certain small communities who allow the wider community to see themselves afresh and to feel that they are being taken seriously. John Morgans was able to do what he did in Penrhys because people trusted him, because he understood their language and because he was seen as someone who had no sectional interest to pursue in that community, but was able and free to broker the interests of all those involved. That is of course where the role of many communities of faith comes into this question, not least the role of the established church, which has that long-term, non-negotiable commitment to presence in local communities. It is one of those institutions which is not going to go away—perhaps, in many of our contexts, the only one.
Healthy citizenship grows out of a sense that your voice is worth hearing. You will discover that your voice is worth hearing when you are listened to. You are listened to most effectively—most transformingly—in those local contexts about which we have already heard so much. We have been reminded from both sides of your Lordships’ House of the folly of any mythology which supposes that central government can dictate to local priorities and stifle them and rob them of their vitality. We are interested in a citizenship that is more than passive. It is about more than what is due to me, but is about what I positively want, and not simply what I want for myself but what I recognise as wanted by my neighbours; a citizenship which recognises that my happiness is involved with the happiness of my neighbour. I was very pleased indeed to hear the quotation from the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about neighbourliness as a factor in this situation.
So the partnership which we are beginning to talk about here is to do with a shared discernment of what we want together, of the happiness which we recognise is bound up with the happiness of one another. It is not, I need hardly remind your Lordships, the state’s business to define happiness. But neither is happiness simply a private issue of a set of individual satisfactions.
In supporting the coalitions of shared interest at the local level, the state discovers substance in the idea of human dignity, and it educates people to a wider and wider view of what solidarity and shared human happiness are about. Out of the kinds of partnership we have begun to discuss this afternoon there emerges that wider sense of common interest both nationally and internationally—not the least of our concerns at the moment—which enables people to see themselves not only as activists in one local community, not only even as citizens of one particular nation, but as people who take responsibility and share responsibility for human welfare on the widest front. Just as importantly, effective partnership builds the skills that are needed for brokering and forwarding that process. It is a process which has its own feedback to learn locally in partnership and in community. What it is to define shared interest and common happiness is also to find the skills you need to keep it alive.
In conclusion, I want to quote from the words of the sociologist, Richard Sennett, who is an exponent, it is perhaps worth saying, of what some would still refer to as associational socialism, which might be rather different from the centralist socialism that has been spoken of already. In his book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, he writes that,
“a good polity is one in which all citizens believe they are bound together in a common project”.
That he distinguishes from what he refers to as the “iron cage of solidarity”, a solidarity which leaves no room for intention, action, transformation and, as I referred to earlier, that depth and multidimensionality of human persons without which no society—local, national or international—can hope for any health.
My Lords, I stand before you today a relative youth with much still to learn. Yet I have been humbled by the extraordinary welcome that I have been given by your Lordships: by my sponsors, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Bates; by my mentor, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe; and by many other noble Lords, with their kind words. I also thank the dedicated staff who serve this House so admirably, for which I am extremely grateful, and without whom I would be literally lost every day. Not once has my youth been held against me: rather, I have been treated as a peer. I have been kindly and undeservedly given the experience and wisdom that graces this noble Chamber and its surroundings.
This contrast between my relative youth and the privilege of being able to be surrounded by others of much greater wisdom and experience than I reminds me of a time in my early childhood that shaped the man you see before you today. Unlike perhaps many second-generation Chinese born in this country, I had the joy and fortune not only to grow up in the company of others who emigrated from Hong Kong where my parents originated and from other parts of Asia but to enjoy the friendship of many wonderful English men and women of much experience who served at the Christian mission at which my father worked, and even to stay frequently with an English babysitter and her family. This early and subsequent exposure to people from different walks of life, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds has helped me time and again. It has given me what I know today is called social capital, particularly the bridging kind, and has allowed me to explore different worlds. It gave me an early understanding of civil society and its ability to transform your outlook and even your life.
After spending my formative years in London, my family moved to a part of Milton Keynes which I only recently discovered was mainly inhabited by another sort of émigré, people who had left the slums of east London in search of a better life in the 1960s and 1970s. Attending the local comprehensive school, I was exposed early to the kinds of social problems that come with having a low income and witnessed behaviour and the use of narcotics that I now still come across in east London where my family and I live today. I learnt above all that while income was an important factor in poverty, escaping it required much more than just financial capital; it required social capital. I was fortunate to have access to teachers and mentors who lent me theirs, who were supportive and who knew how to help me get into a great university.
At that university I learnt many things, but one experience stood out; I took part in a business competition run by a computer simulation in which different teams competed to make rounds of decisions in the hope of successfully producing virtually the best products and the greatest profit. My team won against the odds, which was most shocking because none of us had any business or higher mathematical training and many other teams were better qualified than ours. All we did was organise ourselves so that we could make any kind of useful decision faster and reasonably well. It taught me that ordinary people can, against the odds, out-perform expectations when they work together in groups. Over the years since that victory, I have been able to observe the same phenomenon in business, in education, in social enterprise, and now in civil society. To quote Margaret Mead’s timeless phrase:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.
This brings me on to the topic of today’s debate, which I am thankful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for having initiated and which is very much close to my heart. I have enjoyed the speeches so far and I look forward to those to follow. The debate is indeed incredibly well timed. The role of partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy is at the forefront of many minds in this country. There is much discussion in the nation at large about the associated phrase “the big society” and what it really means. As a regular citizen who has the privilege to speak today on this topic, I would like briefly not only to hazard an informed guess but to acknowledge a number of challenges that will need to be overcome to make such a vision—such effective partnerships—work, and then to close by highlighting the powerful role this House can and does play in facilitating such partnerships.
The big society, it would appear, operates at three levels. On one, it is a question that civil society is now, more than ever, being asked about what role it wants to play in shaping our collective social future, in driving long-term change and solving entrenched problems. The answer to the question can vary depending on one’s political inclinations, geography and past experiences, but the first step is to ask the question. There will be many different answers, many big societies, but the exciting development is that the topic of the debate in this House is also a topic of debate in many houses across this land, often for the first time in generations.
On another level, the big society describes a set of policies to give more powers to people closer to where they live, to help increase the capacity and resources of civil society to take up such powers, and to encourage a sense of collective progress and momentum since it can be hard to “bowl alone”. I shall defer to noble Lords speaking after me to further elaborate on these policies, but it would seem to me that this Government clearly wish to affirm that partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy are to be welcomed.
The third level at which the big society seems to operate beyond asking the question and setting out policies is that of nurturing an ecosystem. I describe this as the big society coral reef, because at the heart of this debate, in my humble opinion, is not just what civil society thinks social policy should be or even what government pronounces, but a collective and very British constitutional negotiation of a partnership for the 21st century that values and combines not just the seabed, the bedrock of our public services—to protect the vulnerable—but the coral represented by the many current and future providers of those services that add variety and innovation and humanity to their delivery. Last but not least it is the very fish that feed in these waters, the local citizen groups that can extend, vivify and shape this landscape in ambitious as well as humble ways. No single part of this ecosystem can or should dominate, but by working well together each comes to form a whole that is often more than the sum of its parts.
There will be challenges in realising such a partnership, as many attempts to forge it before have shown both here and abroad. I list a few of the possible risks: unclear goals leading to a dissipation of effort; a lack of even a moderate amount of resource to empower scalable citizen responses; institutional resistance to the change this approach entails; the capture of new powers by vested interests that are so off-putting to the apolitical citizen; and apathy or a lack of critical mass. Neither civil society or government, nor we in this House, should be under any illusion that the journey to achieving this 21st century partnership will not be long, arduous and filled with setbacks. But the state of our politics, the resourcefulness now required of our economy, and the multi-faceted and complex nature of the social policy challenges we face appear to me to invite us to travel down this path as far as it can take us over the coming years until a new, healthier, more vibrant balance can be found for the benefit of this nation: one that is built upon ancient values and traditions as well as the latest technology and ways of working.
This House can and does play a pivotal role in the success or failure of this journey, this partnership, this big society. It does so in three ways: in the tireless and passionate championing of charitable, social enterprise and other socially beneficial causes, whether with or without government support, which so many of your Lordships undertake; in the holding to account of government through debate and questioning; and in the recognition of whether particular laws government seeks to pass will strengthen or weaken civil society and the ability of local groups to thrive and flourish.
This House role models, defends and forges the very partnerships we are debating today. My hope is that as long as I am privileged to be a Member of it, and indeed at least until I can one day speak with the same experience and wisdom that your Lordships possess—which no doubt will not be for a very long time—this House will continue to be a source of inspiration for partnerships between government and civil society in houses up and down the land—houses which, like ours, are motivated by Gandhi’s timeless entreaty to,
“be the change you wish to see in the world”.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow a maiden speech and to welcome the contribution of a new member of our community to our deliberations. For me today—I am sure noble Lords will agree—it is a particular pleasure to welcome such an impressive maiden speech. The noble Lord not only has an impressive academic and professional record behind him but remains an eternal student, unashamedly learning from the university of life. I am glad to see the candid way in which he intends to share what he is learning with us in our deliberations and in helping us to find the right way to take things forward. It was exhilarating to listen to him. I am sure it augurs well for the future and that he will make, I hope, many telling contributions to our debates in future.
I declare an interest because, like other Members of the House, I have worked much of my life, professionally and voluntarily, and as a trustee in the voluntary sector. With that kind of background, I welcome the fact that the consideration of society is back on the agenda. We all had a nightmare when the concept of society was being denied and it is good that we are now talking from our different standpoints about society and how we want it to be.
In his thoughtful observation, the right reverend Prelate—we are all grateful to him for the opportunity of having this debate—concentrated to some extent on pluralism and multiculturalism and the challenge of being able to welcome all parts of society to the macro-reality of the total society. This was sometimes difficult because one did not always take immediately to what a particular sector of society believed or how it conducted itself—one did not always understand—but this made all the greater the importance of striving to understand and include that element in the total reality. That is an important point because if we are serious about society—let alone this new idea of the big society—inclusiveness must be the name of the game.
On the definition of the big society, I was reminded only this morning of how urgent it is to get that definition and be clear about how the fulfilment, or the application, of the defined big society is to be undertaken. I was reminded of it this morning because I had a very interesting conversation with some representatives of the Salvation Army. I am not a member of the Salvation Army but I am an unqualified admirer of the social commitment and, indeed, the increasing quality of the policy work and social analysis being done by the Salvation Army. They were saying that, as they prepare themselves—and they are keen to prepare themselves—for playing their part in whatever is to be the future, they really do need to know what the definition is so they can work out how they make that contribution. They felt that it was critical to clarify the breakdown between central government responsibility and local government responsibility. It seems to be a central government commitment to have a big society and to welcome the non-governmental sector’s participation in it, but the same Government are emphasising from their standpoint the importance of decentralisation to local government. How does an organisation like the Salvation Army, which is a national reality, prepare itself if it has no certainty that what will be done at local level, under local responsibility, reflects what the central government might have as their strategy? It is not impossible to reconcile those two positions but serious organisations preparing for the future need some clarity on this.
I am very glad that the right reverend Prelate, in giving a title to this debate, talked about civil society “shaping social policy”. He saw a proactive role in policy-making for civil society. I have become very concerned in recent years—and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury referred very powerfully to this—about the confusion between consumerism and citizenship. Somebody was taking me to task about my view the other day and saying, “But surely you have never been consulted as often as you are now. Look at all the questionnaires you receive”. I said “QED. Citizenship is not about putting ticks in boxes; it is about deciding what should be the questions on the questionnaire”. It seems to me, therefore, that this concept of civil society contributing positively out of its experience to the shaping of policy is crucial for our future. We really must be cautious about allowing, whether by design—I hope not—or inadvertently, a situation in which lots of the activity being encouraged by people out there in society is a kind of occupational therapy, a kind of diversion or distraction, while the big players go on playing the game exactly as they have played it in the past, with so many disastrous results.
If we are talking about big society we must balance that concept of “big” with our commitment to a just society. I very much doubt whether there is anyone in this House who would question for a moment that, if we are to have a sustainable future society, it must be just. You will never have perfect justice but, in so far as it is not a manifestation of striving towards justice, we will always have the danger of instability or, indeed, in these unpredictable times in which we live, worse. It is a matter also, I believe, of security itself.
If we are to look at the issue of the just society, we have to look at the context within which we are advocating the new policies. Central to this must be our value system. I find it interesting that we are all told from all quarters, not least by my own party these days, about the inviolability and the dominance of the market and, to some extent, of liberal economics. One of the great thinkers about liberal economics was Adam Smith. I have always been tickled by the fact that Adam Smith’s first writing was not really on economics at all, but on ethics. He was a highly ethical man. He had a real sense of social responsibility and values, from which he went on to talk about, as he saw it—however much some of us may fail to buy that particular part of his academic contribution—the vital role of capitalism, the liberal economy and the market. What we have had too much of is liberal economics and the market without the context of ethics, social responsibility and values.
I doubt that there is anyone, particularly among those present for this debate in any part of the House, who would question the thesis that what is obscene about our society is the differentials between grotesque wealth and the still-grinding poverty which faces us. I am afraid that this has been coupled to some extent—it may not have been deliberate—with, in effect, the denigration of the concept of public service. I know that in the time when I was growing up as a young man it was thought of as a good and fine thing to go into public service. We have to be very careful that, with our materialism and quantitative society, we have not slipped into a situation in which it is thought of as a bit of a failure to go and work in the public sector because a successful person is making a pile in the City or elsewhere. We have to rehabilitate the status of service and public services in that context, because when we talk to countless members of our society about their responsibilities and how they should go about their lives, it is surely essential that we approach this in the context of “do as we do” and not simply “do as we say”.
Perhaps I might be allowed just one word on education. There is of course a certain attraction about the concepts of communities being able to get together and organise their own schools and so on. But there are bigger challenges than this in our midst. All of us have direct experience of affluent, middle-class, professional societies which will make a tremendous success of the school in their midst and be only too glad to participate in the governance and development of that school. We also have experience of utterly deprived areas where dedicated teachers will spend a great deal of time preparing an open day or evening to which three parents will turn up. That is why some of us emphasise the importance in our approach to education of recognising not this “either/or” but that our democratic institutions have a responsibility to ensure that there is compensation for the absence of resources in our most deprived areas.
There is one other matter: I happen to believe from my own direct experience that the voluntary sector faces some pretty acute challenges about its own destiny. Will it allow itself to be seduced into becoming deliverers of public policy, into becoming sub-contractors for efficient, effective public provision? I want public services that are second to none; I want high-quality public services; I want dedicated people working within public services; I want to see the status accorded public service that should be accorded to it. Surely the voluntary sector is about being the yeast, the catalyst, in society. It is about challenging; it is about identifying and establishing what needs to be done and then shaming society as a whole into undertaking what society alone, with its total resources, is able to fulfil. If we are going to get this right, there is one word—and I was glad to hear the most reverend Primate emphasise it. We must get back to the centre of our approach. That is the rehabilitation or regeneration of the concept of a society in which solidarity is the underpinning strength. In our deliberations here, no less than in many other places, we talk a great deal about the deprived and deprivation and the need for redistribution of resources, but just how much time do we put in to talking with the deprived and becoming their voice?
All I can do—and I try to follow the noble Lord in his magnificent maiden speech in this respect—is to speak out from my own life experience. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I am emotional about this, but I would probably say that the most important learning experience in my life, although life is all learning, came in the years when I was privileged to be director of Oxfam. Frankly, I had moments when I was doing that job when I asked myself how the hell I had the audacity to have been a Minister. What did I really understand about the society in which I lived and whose needs I was supposed to answer? I was beginning to discover. We must recognise that the voluntary sector, in fulfilling its destiny, must accept the challenge of advocacy. It has a responsibility second to none to use what it is learning from its engagement, not just from its theory; that is the crucial point. It must contribute that to the national debate about the way forward.
My Lords, first, I say how much I appreciate the opportunity given by the right reverend Prelate to discuss this subject. I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei. We are doubly grateful for him, because he has halved the average age of this Chamber by being present here today. We welcome the noble Lord—please make us as useful as we possibly can be.
It is easy for government at this time to assume some sort of investment responsibility for charities that are finding it difficult to make ends meet. It is just as easy for charities themselves to grab any money from government that will, initially at least, enable them to do much more than they otherwise could. But at a time when charities, like anyone else, are feeling the pinch, it is tempting for them not to face the dangers of becoming dependent on government money.
I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Phillips, who would have spoken this afternoon, is not here to continue that argument. From his experience of many years in a law practice, he has seen the tap that was suddenly turned on and that was a lifesaver to charities suddenly turned off, leaving a financial gap which those charities were unable to fulfil. This has led charities to collapse entirely or, at the best, it has meant a sudden lay-off of staff and loss of reputation. We have to be very careful of government money taking over from the voluntary subscriptions that have maintained these charities over so many years. But there is also the more subtle danger that the Government will want their way, which, if the charity were left to its own devices, would not be the way that it would choose. That could encourage a switch from voluntary assistance to paid staff who, welcome as they are, can inadvertently undermine the character of the charity. One should never forget that the voluntary sector is, and must remain, overwhelmingly voluntary. The dangers of creeping professionalisation are real and largely unadmitted. Provided that charities are alert to these dangers, real partnership with government can bring great mutual benefits. It is not sufficient in itself but often the lifesaver that is needed.
Every partnership must rely first of all on trust. A breakdown of trust following different allegations in various places—we have seen this in Parliament itself—has serious consequences. When there is a breakdown of trust we have resignations, even criminal proceedings, and there is an erosion of public confidence. In all organisations, that confidence is essential; without it, it is impossible to build communities, organisations and schemes, and that hinders harmonious relations. We must have trust and confidence. I know that in Wales we look with a wee bit of suspicion at any breakdown of trust because we are trying to defend an identity, our own culture and language. We have to be very sensitive.
Memories of past injustices make it difficult for communities to have that confidence, co-operation and trust. We know how alive memories are, for example, in the Middle East. We are glad that memories have been overcome in recent years after what has happened in Northern Ireland, but you have to work hard to heal the scars of the wounds of the past.
I have been a Methodist minister for many years. I remember that in the village of Tregarth in the Bethesda area—some might know it, but it is not the best-known village in the United Kingdom—there was a strike and a lockout about 110 years ago. In order to maintain their families, some people had to break the strike and go back to work in the quarry. They were known as “bradwrs”—I shall say “betrayers”, which is a gentler word. There was a tremendous rift in that community. There was a wedding there about 10 years ago where I heard two people talking who said, “Do you know, this marriage will never work. Her great-grandfather was a bradwr”. So many years have gone by, but the memories are still alive.
Perhaps we cannot forgive, but we have by grace to learn in communities how to forgive and to restore trust. It is a matter not of politics or procedures but of determination, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, to heal the wounds of history. If we do not do that, many of our efforts will be in vain. It is about trust between people and within communities. Co-operation at every level is meaningful only when there is trust and respect.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for securing this debate, and I add my compliments to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, for an outstanding maiden speech. It put me in mind of probably the best advice that I was ever given, which was from my father: if you want to change the world, you need to get to the top but not lose your principles on the way. The noble Lord’s speech showed us that he holds many high principles and is bringing them to enrich this House, so I congratulate him.
Preparing for this debate set me thinking about boundaries and where the responsibility for them lies. The Government—indeed, this House—make laws, and those laws send a message to our society. They set the boundaries of what, within our own nation, we can and cannot do. Most are protective. Some are permissive but they often have a protective element to them, so in providing permission they sometimes also protect people who previously did not have protection. The Civil Partnership Act has done just that, and in providing permission it has also provided protection. I exclude taxation legislation from those comments, I might say.
We then have the boundaries of society, which are where society interprets in practice the laws that are there. Those in authority, particularly health and education, and leaders of all sorts, civic and religious, lead that interpretation at a local level. Then, within our communities, we have the actions within those boundaries of the individual human being. The community and the culture of that community define how we express ourselves and how we express our emotions and our emotional response to things. Part of our human being is our human emotional response. Emotion crosses all those boundaries of sex, creed, religion, race and so on but its expression varies by context and by the permissions or prohibitions of the culture within which it is set.
We live in an interconnected society with relationships—and relationships are key. The right reverend Prelate spoke about autonomy and it is worth thinking for a moment about the meaning of that word, which is self-governance. If we talk about the autonomy of a community it is about the self-governance of that community. If we talk about the autonomy of an individual, it is about the self-governance of that individual. It means that we have to take into consideration the effects of actions on other people. Autonomy does not mean for a community, individual or even a society, “I want therefore I get”. It brings with it a whole set of responsibilities. The abuse of boundaries endangers others. We see that sometimes with the way that the elderly are frightened of youth.
It has been said that we have a demographic time bomb. It is a phrase I do not like because it completely undervalues the enormous potential of an elderly population. We do not value their contribution and yet they have an enormous amount to offer in an interconnected way. Projects such as the University of the Third Age have built and encouraged those intersupportive networks that allow people to help each other, to telephone each other and take people out of loneliness. They eat together, debate, maintain fitness, they are concerned and active and then, when someone in the community has a problem, the others come together in a completely informal, voluntary rota that provides an enormous amount of support that I fear we just do not value as a society because we class them all together as a bunch of elderlies with zimmer frames and so on—with judgmental statements that do not value their worth.
How do we, as a society, harness their worth within our communities? One of the problems is that we have become risk-averse rather than risk-intelligent in the way that we respond to the way that one person responds to another. We have become so worried about child abuse that we have forgotten the importance of the elderly person to a troubled youngster—a person who can listen to the youngster, soak up their concerns and provide wisdom in a non-judgmental way. Perhaps such people are the only ones a young person can confide in. They work in lieu of an extended family now and these elderly members of our society bring their own personal history which is enriching. That personal history can act as an inspirational role model to the youngster who is devoid of aspiration and devoid of a role model and support.
I would like to take a moment to think about the children in our society, because they are also often forgotten when they are really in need. It is estimated that in school-age children, one in 29 is bereaved of a parent or sibling and one in 16 is bereaved of a significant other. That means that in every school class will be one child bereaved of a parent or sibling and two bereaved of a significant other, yet that is something that we brush under the carpet and ignore. We know that those children are at higher risk of depression and of underachieving academically and, sadly, at higher risk of things such as drug abuse and falling into crime, teenage pregnancy and alcoholism further down the line. It is that other army, of elderly people in the community, who can provide the support by marking the anniversary of the significant person’s death with a card, a visit or a word. This means that the person who was of value to you is recognised as also having been of value in our community. Whoever they were, the intrinsic worth of the individual is recognised and this allows the child to move forward.
I worry that we do not harness this enormous potential enough. We somehow have to discourage the stories of the individual, which can be inspirational, being used to harbour bitterness in trying to determine identity. It is those stories that can inspire the social capital that the noble Lord, Lord Wei, spoke about. Sadly, sometimes, things seem to go wrong and we talk about a failure to communicate within our communities or society. However, I wonder whether it is more a failure to listen than a failure to give information. When you talk and listen to people who feel that a system has failed them, it turns out that they were not listened to—they were spoken at. Perhaps we have to relearn those more basic ways of communicating—that is, to listen with our ears and use our eyes, noses, touch and every sense of our being—to understand and develop the interconnectedness that has been alluded to by some of the previous speakers in this debate.
The most reverend Primate spoke about dignity. Indeed, “dignity” has been defined as having a sense of personal worth. We know when we have lost our dignity. We take it for granted that we will have it. We know when it has been taken away from us by not being treated with respect, not being listened to and not being treated as a human being of worth. A grumpy, snappy response or a dismissive tone can make somebody who is already vulnerable feel that they are being a nuisance and a burden. While we talk about the role of government and communities, the effect must filter right down to the interaction of one person with another and individual respect. However, the tone is set by that of the Government in setting the rules and the framework.
It has been said that the mark of a civilised society is how it cares for its vulnerable, which seems to be a pretty good definition. As we discuss this and face a new Government, we face a society with many youngsters who have poverty of aspiration. There is real physical poverty in our midst. I declare an interest as a patron of the Trussell Trust, which has set up food banks. I know of the ones in Wales and the number of people who need food to tide them over for 24 or 48 hours because they have no money to buy basic food for themselves and their children. The food bank system is completely voluntary and is rebuilding connections in some of these very deprived areas and communities.
What should a Government do? Far be it from me as a humble Cross-Bencher to try to advise the Government, but I have some thoughts and I will have the audacity to share them. Perhaps we need to set a framework to allow people to be risk-intelligent, rather than inappropriately risk-averse. This framework would empower a community and enable it to realise its innate creativity, but also protect the vulnerable from exploitation and ensure justice for all walks of life, free from discrimination. That is the only way that we will see our principles realised.
My Lords, hats off to my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for initiating the debate and to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, for speaking with such clarity, courtesy and wisdom that it was difficult to believe that it was a maiden speech.
In his history of the 20th century, AJP Taylor suggested this:
“Until … 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and policemen”.
That is a measure of how far we have come. Clearly, things are very different at the beginning of the 21st century. The big society, as I understand it, is an attempt to reassess the relationship between the state, the individual and the “little platoons”, whose importance in developing the possibility of a creative and democratic society is appreciated and was mentioned by my noble friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. Your Lordships will remember Burke’s dictum:
“To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of publick affections”.
I think that the Prime Minister is aiming at the same target when he says:
“Big society demands a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.
The massive expansion of state provision in the 20th century happened for very good reasons and I believe that we should be proud of it. Charity provision was very unevenly spread and it was gradually accepted that basic services such as health could best be provided on a universal basis. However, now there is a need to rebalance the contributions made by the state and civil society. It is a matter not simply of removing controls and bureaucracy but—this is the crucial point—of empowering community action.
Your Lordships have already heard of the proposal to establish 5,000 community organisers to assist people to establish and run neighbourhood groups. The noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, referred to that. There is a suggestion that these organisers will be part-time and responsible for fundraising to raise at least part of their salaries.
I declare an interest as bishop of a diocese where there are hundreds of church-sponsored social projects and, in particular, a number of community development workers who have proved their worth in recent years. Marlon Nelson, for example, who works in Brent, was recently nominated as a community hero for his work in setting up the Brent night shelter for the homeless. In our little platoon, our aspirations are defined in what we call our London challenge commitments as a diocese, which include the pledge,
“to maintain our presence in every community with a particular bias to serving the poor and vulnerable”.
There is no short-termism here; we are determined to stay for the long term. As is envisaged in the plan to establish 5,000 community organisers, our workers have helped local people to identify their own needs and to enhance their aspirations. I take very much into account what the noble Baroness said about aspirations. They have helped people to take action to exert influence on the decisions that affect their lives and to improve the quality of their lives, the communities in which they live and the societies of which they are part. As a result, the volunteers with whom these community development workers have worked have been energised and given confidence to take action and to get involved.
The crucial point, however, is that part of our experience is that there is a considerable cost to volunteering. Charities, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples cannot simply expand their volunteering without also expanding the infrastructure to provide support, advice, training and, crucially, management of volunteers. In the evaluation that we have done of scores of projects over the past 10 years, we have to confess that failures in management are the most common cause of ineffectiveness. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, has already referred to the fact that state support is crucial in assisting to build infrastructure and to enhance capacity. It is unfortunate that this is precisely the area where fundraising is so unglamorous and problematic. As Muhammad Yunus has argued in Building Social Business, the key is in uniting framework, good will and passion. Good will and passion alone are not sufficient. I should be grateful for assurances from the Minister that this point is really taken on board, as other noble Lords have said.
I have two further points to make, rather more briefly. Incoming Governments are understandably attracted by what is fresh and innovative, but I know that Ministers will be aware that, in addition to the many bodies with a track record in stimulating community action at a local level, there are useful allies in the business of channelling corporate social responsibility and capitalising on the networks that exist.
I speak once more from my own constituency and declare an interest as a council member of Heart of the City, an organisation based in the City of London that provides free support and stimulus to businesses, not only in the City but in the surrounding boroughs, five of which are within the 10 per cent of the most deprived local authority areas in England. The intention is to develop the corporate social responsibility programmes of the businesses in those areas. Communities are of course not only geographical but expressed in networks; businesses are among the most significant of such networks. In the past four years, Heart of the City, funded by the City of London Corporation, has advised 800 businesses, large and small. One thing has become clear, which is crucial to the message of the big society: active participation in volunteering programmes can develop the skills and competencies of employees in a way that assists the reputation of the business, staff recruitment, retention and motivation. Aligning self-interest and the common good has moved corporate social responsibility in the best companies from a tick-box add-on to a board-level concern and a key part of corporate strategy. That will be immensely enhanced by appropriate government rhetoric.
Finally, I declare another interest in my too extensive portfolio: I am chairman of the Church of England’s buildings division. The UK, as we all know, ceased to be a confessional state in 1829 and thereafter successive Governments have rightly been committed to a free market in religious ideas. Frequently, however, where public policy and the aspirations of all the faith communities coincide, there is great potential for partnership. This is true for all the faith communities represented in your Lordships’ House. However, let me give just one example. There are 16,000 parish churches in England. They constitute a countrywide network that endures in the inner cities and rural areas where places of public assembly and service are in short and diminishing supply. There are now more parish churches than post offices; indeed, there are already 12 post offices that operate from church buildings. There is a growing trend to return church buildings to their original function as places of worship and as places of assembly and celebration for the whole of the local community.
As part of our contribution to the debate on the big society I should like to make a big offer—to work with government and local authorities to develop a strategy for helping places of worship to be more serviceable community hubs, in addition to their primary purpose. At a time of financial stringency and when the green agenda is clearly understood, it obviously makes sense to maintain and develop such a significant national asset. It would cost billions of pounds to replicate the countrywide social infrastructure that such buildings already represent. Any assistance would of course depend on a proven determination and agreement to equip places of worship for wider community access beyond the ranks of regular worshippers, but modest investments could yield large dividends and make a significant contribution to moving the big society from romance to reality.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for obtaining this debate. We have already heard some wonderful contributions.
Volunteering is very much the purpose and at the heart of my life, as it is, I suspect, of the lives of many others in the House today. It is crucial for the health and well-being of society. Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Wei, I made my maiden speech some 14 years ago during an afternoon debate following the Deakin report, which had come out earlier that year, on volunteering in this century. Therefore, it has been an enormous joy to hear him speak on how he sees things developing in the years to come. I thank and congratulate him.
It is, I think, impossible to define the big society, but from my own very narrow perspective it is a reflection of a society that is inclusive and available to all, not just a few. It is not important whether it occurs within a local community or countrywide; what is important is that all citizens, whatever their background and whatever their problems or aspirations, feel that it is for them. However, in some ways we have not achieved that. I am disappointed when occasionally people say to me, “Oh, but you’re one of the do-gooders”. For goodness’ sake, we are involved in the community and helping others to achieve, and those people may then themselves help others to achieve. I hope that the big society that we have will be more inclusive and open-ended than perhaps it has been in the past.
I turn to one or two of the practical problems that our voluntary organisations and charities currently face. In doing so, I hope that the Government will look at whether there are ways in which we can help those involved in volunteering so as to overcome some of the hurdles that they encounter at the moment. As we know, volunteers come in all shapes and sizes. They give freely of their time, skills and good will, and often receive no recompense. The latest figures that I have on cash input into voluntary involvement in the UK put the total expenditure at £35.5 billion, of which 38 per cent, or £13.5 billion, comes from the public sector. Three-quarters of our voluntary bodies receive no public sector funding, while a mere 27,000 out of approximately 180,000 charities take more than three-quarters of it. That means that very few charities are taking a huge amount of money from the available pool. The question of whether the value of what they give needs to be reviewed perhaps deserves reflection.
I shall touch briefly on the importance of tax relief to charities, which in 2007-08 brought in £2.2 billion. I hope that in times of financial difficulty, not just for the Government but for us as individuals, that money will be protected.
Reports on the voluntary sector are regular but contain rather old statistics. To me, the important point about volunteer groups is that they vary so much, whether big or small. One can grasp very easily by looking at the Honours List the depth and breadth of voluntary activities, but perhaps I may highlight one that I noticed in the most recent Honours List. It is a recently formed charity that was established in reaction to a need—Help the Heroes. In moving forward, I hope that whatever view the Government take, they will be flexible in their approach and that they will allow new charities to come about in response to society’s needs as they arise.
Many of us have worked in long-established and well recognised charities and organisations. It is well known that I spent time with the WRVS. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, said how important it is that one is innovative. From the WRVS, which started in the Second World War as the WVS, came Meals on Wheels, work in hospitals and work with children. It was very innovative. Some of that work has been taken on by the state, but that organisation allowed individuals to develop in ways that perhaps has not been so easy to do in more recent times.
Some of our volunteers are frustrated by faceless individuals in London demanding the completion of many forms. They resent the implication that they are not competent to act on their own without supervision from afar. They also abhor the emphasis on training, which often requires them to travel some distance at their own expense to attend courses which help them not at all, but just inform them about new legislative interference. I was surprised to be told by a friend, who is a long-term volunteer, that she was expected to obtain CRB clearance to work for nothing for four hours a month in a charity shop and was then expected to attend a further two hours training for each of the first six months. Some requirements are certainly over the top.
I ask the Minister whether the Government will look again at CRB clearance. If someone gains a certificate of clearance, that should cover them for more than one charity and more than one responsibility. There is also a cost to organisations as an individual volunteer cannot do it. That is one practical, important suggestion. It is ludicrous that someone who gets clearance with one organisation cannot then perform a job with another organisation.
I am aware that there is some difficulty in attracting younger people to support the elderly or to encourage children to play football, join the Scouts or Guides or take up a hobby. Their abilities to raise the funds necessary to do short, intensive stints abroad building schools, digging wells, teaching English, and so on, fill me with admiration, but they have a problem in acquiring the support they need. I hope that we shall look at new ways to help individuals to volunteer in a more fulfilling way.
I count as volunteers those who serve on parish, town and borough councils. They are hugely important, particularly at election time. However, sometimes we cannot attract young people to stand for what I call traditional posts. Young people who come into voluntary organisations perhaps did not volunteer some years ago and they tend to want to respond to a cause, to a particular charity or event. For example, my granddaughter will shortly be walking the three peaks to raise money for a local hospice. That is a one-off, very good example of slightly more informal volunteering which perhaps is not recognised in the bigger society but which plays an important part.
Returning to CRB clearances, I was very upset to hear that on one occasion a local authority organised a Scout camp which had to be cancelled due to a local flu outbreak which reduced the number of vetted parents available to volunteer. One parent had St John Ambulance clearance but he was not cleared to volunteer with the Scouts. That is madness. I hope that these practical suggestions will receive consideration.
Noble Lords have also talked about the most precious part of volunteering within families. We have mentioned the role of grandparents helping out with their grandchildren, but I pay great tribute to many young people who are the main supporters of some families because a parent is unwell and cannot cope. They hold the family together and attend school. In that context, I pay great tribute to the organisations that give such carers a break and give those children a chance to be children, because so often in their daily routine they are unable to.
With the spending review looming large and money being tight for individuals, charities and the Government, there are ways in which we can try to help to encourage communities to grow. I would hate to think that there is a “one size fits all” answer, because life is not like that. Things that work in a little village where I may live may not work in an inner city. On the other hand, London is a big city but it has its own communities within it. They are literally little parishes. If the Government can help and encourage them to feel an identity and to grow, that will be a huge success.
Another thing that worries me, with the cuts and the financial difficulties that we face, is how we as individuals and a community respond to these challenges. It is all very well coming here with rose-tinted glasses saying, “Everything will be all right and if we all pull together, it will be wonderful”. But there are real problems and real challenges along with real opportunities as well. I was taken by a recent article by Stephen Bubb, the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, entitled:
“The Big Society: Moving from Romanticism to Reality”.
We need to be very firmly placed, with our feet on the ground, to realise what we can and cannot do together. There is nothing worse than taking on something, realising that we cannot do it and therefore failing. On the other hand, in whatever way we can, we should help others.
I hope that I have given one or two practical suggestions to the Minister when she comes to wind up. There are no easy answers. I have worked in big organisations; I have worked in very small ones. The organisation that I mention in particular is the Leicestershire Clubs for Young People, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and I know well. It is a very good example of young people coming in to help each other. In the old days, it was the Leicestershire Boys’ Clubs, and a lot of youngsters joined because they liked playing football and being together. Of course, nowadays, in our modern society, you cannot have boys clubs, so they are clubs for young people and we have boys and girls, some of whom play football. The whole idea is that, through the development and experience they get, many of them stay on to become leaders in the group. The difficulty for them, the Scouts and many other organisations with which I am involved, lies not in the younger group but in retaining some of the more senior teenagers to help with the older ages within those groups.
That is but one challenge. There are many out there but, to me, the concept of the big society is the crux of making sure that everybody feels that they can play a part. Although they come from different areas and may not have those aspirations, I hope they feel that this Government welcome them and that they have a role to play.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important issue, and the noble Lord, Lord Wei, for his fine speech. Perhaps I can take the tiniest bit of credit, as I may have been among the first to suggest to him that, with his background, this was the ideal forum for his maiden speech.
I begin by declaring an interest as chair of the advisory body for the Office for Civil Society, formerly the Office of the Third Sector, and as someone who has spent a large part of her life working in or closely with the community and voluntary sector. I therefore need no convincing of the importance of the incomparable contribution which the sector makes in shaping a good society or a good community. That contribution has never been more significant, because in the economic stringency of the times in which we live we all face the need for effective responses on all fronts: strong partnerships, integration and a society where relationships are underpinned with a strong commitment to a shared set of values. Those values help us all to understand what shapes a good society.
The importance of the community sector at both national and local level is not, of course, anything new, but the notion of real partnership between the sector and the state has not always been accepted. In fact, I think there have been times when only lip service has been paid to it. Partnership perhaps used to mean the state deciding what the community sector should do and the sector accepting the terms because that was the only way to achieve funding. Over the past 10 years or so, however, the partnership has become much more real and strategic. The sector has grown in scale and impact. There are more charities than ever before. Overall income has increased. More people are volunteering, and more people are setting up social enterprises. The sector is playing a greater role in supporting communities, tackling inequalities, creating opportunities and enterprise, and designing and supplying public services.
The previous Government placed heavy emphasis on supporting the sector. Examples include: the Compact as a framework for partnership working; a new Charities Act; investing in the capacity of the sector, including its infrastructure; introducing new forms of organisation; and many different funding streams. The creation of the special office within the Cabinet Office was itself part of making those relationships and partnerships real and effective, and I pay tribute to the skill and commitment of those who work there. I very much hope and believe that the coalition Government will remain supportive.
Of course, the sector cannot be immune to the economic challenges and must look for new ways of working to make the most effective use of short resources, and I am confident that the sector will do this. The sector is large, fluid and diverse and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, reminded us, we should never forget that three-quarters of voluntary sector organisations receive no funding from statutory sources. However, for those that do, it is important in the new financial climate that we remember their unique contribution and value organisations for that contribution, not for any notion that somehow this sector can provide services cheaper or even, I have sometimes heard it said, at no cost by the use of volunteers. Everyone who has real knowledge of the sector knows that volunteering does not happen without support and that organisation is vital. Let no one be under any illusion about that. It is wonderfully good value, but it is not cost-free, as many noble Lords have acknowledged.
When we think about partnerships across civil society, let us always remember the special contribution that the sector makes. In my view, two things should be singled out. The first is its ability to be innovative, spontaneous and entrepreneurial when addressing social problems. Because it does this, it often heads those problems off at the pass. As an example, I give the work of Citizens Advice. It works all the time: helping people with financial budgeting to prevent debt, or to manage the debt if necessary; negotiating where house repossession is imminent; and working with bailiffs to prevent a family being thrown out of its home. That is all free to the client. It is needless to say that these measures save the Government paying out significant amounts of money and save society huge amounts of distress, but this kind of preventive work is difficult to quantify and justify, and I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance about the priority that the coalition Government put on this preventive work.
The second thing that is unique to the community sector is its ability to engage with service users and the wider community. Only the voluntary sector has that unique perspective. It is closely in touch with disadvantaged people and communities and understands their needs. It is this which enables it to be an effective partner in the delivery of services and in developing social policy. This is the reason why partnerships are vital and why the voice of civil society, through its organisations, needs to be strong as such policies are developed. It is also the reason why we should always remember how important it is to ensure that the voices of users, patients, carers and families, especially those who are disadvantaged, are central in policy-making and why the campaigning side of the work of third sector organisations—the advocacy of which my noble friend Lord Judd reminded us—is so important. It is in this way that we ensure that policies are relevant, targeted and useful to the users, not to those who develop the policies. It is why, in my view, we must be extremely circumspect before we cut funding for this side of civil society organisations’ work, however tempting it might be to see the enabling, campaigning and advocacy work as somehow superfluous in difficult times. I seek the Minister’s reassurance on that point also.
This is National Carers Week, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for mentioning carers. Before I sit down I want to focus on the contribution of carers and their organisations. There is no better example of the big society, and no clearer example of how society is a very long way from being a broken society, than the contribution of carers. In some areas of social policy, taking note of the needs of carers is absolutely vital. It is vital that the voice of that part of civil society—the 6 million carers who contribute £87 billion to the economy every year with the care they provide—is heard and acknowledged in the areas of pensions, long-term care and the capacity of carers to continue to combine caring with paid employment. If we do not consider carers as central to the development of those particular policies, we shall never be able to engage them in the partnerships which this debate is highlighting and which are so vital to so many parts of social policy.
My Lords, the quality of the introductory remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and of the ensuing debate demonstrate why this was such a good subject to lay before your Lordships’ House today for debate. We are all indebted to him. Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to welcome the admirable noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to her new ministerial responsibilities. She was formidable in opposition and she will be formidable both in the Cabinet and at the Dispatch Box here in your Lordships' House. She has brought great credit on herself and I am sure that she will continue to do so for many years to come.
Like others I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wei, and congratulate him on a remarkable, extraordinary and memorable maiden speech. I was struck that he mentioned in his remarks his professional connection with the foundation named for Lord Shaftesbury, who was of course the great 19th century social reformer, and who gave this country the asylums, the ragged schools and the public health legislation. I think that we may see a reflection of the inspiration of Lord Shaftesbury in the work which the noble Lord undertakes in the years that he will spend in your Lordships' House.
The noble Lord mentioned with some trepidation his youth. Perhaps I may say as someone who was once the youngest Member of your Lordships' House but was also the youngest Member of another place, that, sadly, it is something that passes very rapidly. Enjoy it while you can. Robert Kennedy once said that youth is,
“not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination”.
The noble Lord, Lord Wei, showed great imagination in his remarks today and we look forward to very many more contributions in the future.
As we are recalling the 19th century, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that in 1839 Thomas Carlyle published the Condition of England Question. Perhaps if instead of evaluating political success on the basis of crude economic indicators we, too, were to assess the condition of England on the basis of broader social policy, we might be shocked by the tatterdemalion society which we see today.
The Condition of England Question 2010 would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships. According to the Children's Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year. Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK—which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.
Five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. Every day we end the lives of 600 unborn children; one in five pregnancies now ends in abortion and we have laws that permit abortion up to and even during birth in the case of disability. In Edinburgh, figures published earlier this year showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction. Suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24. More than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year.
Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds. Also last year, 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed, which is a 334 per cent increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will know from his experiences, of £338 million. The number of homeless people in the United Kingdom is 380,000, which is the same as the population of Bristol. Five hundred people will sleep rough tonight.
The prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993. This week, 85,056 men and women are in our jails. Gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day. The average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 years. Individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year. At the end of April, total UK personal debt stood at £1,460 billion. That shames us and underlines the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about neighbourliness. In Britain, an estimated 1 million elderly people do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week. There would be so much more about the Condition of England Question that should give us pause. The poet, TS Eliot, could have had this dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see The Abolition of Man—the title of one of his books.
The missing piece of the political puzzle has been the importance of relationships. Too narrow a focus on economic growth and market efficiency can too often overlook the importance of fostering community and family life, and supporting relationships. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned the shortcomings of liberal economics, and he is right. Political liberalism has many strengths, but it has weaknesses too. It can become Utopian and easily bogged down into too narrow a focus on proceduralism; that is, so long as you go through the motions it makes it legitimate to repair society by constitutional or procedural change, or by an economic fix. The average voter, I suspect, would agree with Thomas Macaulay’s assertion:
“An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia”.
In 2008, David Cameron identified what he called a “broken society”, a phrase that has been challenged in your Lordships’ debate today. He said that he intended to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer. During the general election, the Prime Minister attempted to define the difference between his party and the Opposition around the slogan of the “big society versus the big state”. We have spent a lot of time rightly talking about that today.
Although I have always had an instinctive aversion to the overbearing, busybody collectivisation of life by an authoritarian state—I spent 25 years either as a local councillor or as a Member of another place representing an inner city area of the city of Liverpool—there is also a danger in believing that we can somehow dispense with the state, especially when it comes to providing protection for the least fortunate and the least well off in society.
The welfare state emerged in 1942 when William Beveridge laid out his plans to eliminate “freedom from want”. He saw the state as a safety net—I was intrigued by the beautiful metaphor used by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, where he described the big society as like a coral reef—but certainly not a suffocating blanket. His objective was to eliminate what he identified as five “giant evils”—squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Thanks to Beveridge, we tilted away from indifference and reliance on charitable giving to intervention and direct help. But, as the years passed, the state grew like leviathan, spawning bureaucracies which fed upon themselves. A uniformity was imposed, which has led to the same centralised regulations being placed on citizens from Barrow-in-Furness to Bournemouth, regardless of local differences and circumstances.
The debate about whether the state has become too invasive, which David Cameron sought to initiate, has been caricatured as a smoke screen or cipher to make swingeing reductions in the remit and resources available to state agencies, but it did not strike me that way. We must not let the debate become a pretext for a polarised confrontation between those who propose cuts in public expenditure and those who oppose them. If we could take a more thoughtful approach to the role of individual citizens and their role in promoting the common good, a phrase used by the most reverend Primate during his remarks earlier in the debate, we would see that the big civil society and the state need one another. Insisting on the present organisation of the National Health Service or social services should not become a species of Holy Writ for which its defenders will go to the stake.
For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state. There are signs that out of the debris of a compromised fiscal system, some people are beginning to reassess what really matters to them and what they truly value. Here is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life, and the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part.
When partnerships are created between the state and what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, quoted earlier by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, the voluntary groups and neighbourhood associations that would be integral to what David Cameron has called a,
“broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”,
we would have our best hope of combating today’s gigantic challenges. And who can doubt, as many noble Lords have said today, that there are many functions that have been taken on by the state but which could be discharged by the little platoons?
Along with a more reflective approach towards our individual role we will also have to reassess the blighting effect of the great bureaucracies on individual behaviour. Their tendency to sap personal endeavour can be deeply corrosive. Our civil society has become uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone. I was glad to hear the most reverend Primate talk about the need for a virtuous society. A few years ago I wrote a little and rather unmemorable book called Citizen Virtues which made precisely that point. We must not create a situation where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The uncivil society is further entrenched by individual isolation, a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue. We enter perilous waters when choice is not conditioned by any regard for consequences and when society has no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.
Through the Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship, which I direct at Liverpool John Moores University, and where I hold a chair—I declare my interest—I have seen some extraordinary examples of public service among young people in the north-west of England. If their attitudes could become tomorrow’s practice, we will have grounds for hope, but we should not underestimate the scale of the disaggregation which has occurred in society and which I set out in the points I made about the Condition of England Question.
So we do need a serious consideration of the parameters within which the British state, comprising some 63 million citizens, should operate. We also need to ask ourselves how we will form citizens who are willing to accept the responsibilities and duties which a less nannying and omnipresent state would require. Saint Edith Stein, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, was a German-Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun. At a time when the Nazi state was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill, and about the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the state in which they live. She rightly insisted that both society and the state consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities. They are made up of men, women and children whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real. These are her words. “The state”, she said,
“is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer. And it is their actions that conform to or violate norms and values … the state is just or unjust, protective to those whom it ought to protect, and scrupulous or unscrupulous in its dealings with other states, only insofar as the relevant individual persons have these characteristics. Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals”.
The state, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens. Stein warned that when the two do not coalesce it inevitably leads to conflict.
If such coercion is to be forestalled and agreement and partnership is to emerge, it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the common good. If we are to do this, and if the big society is to take the place of the big state, this will require nothing less than a fundamental change in our attitudes and culture to achieve, something that I certainly would welcome.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to hear how Members of your Lordships’ House might flesh out the bare bones of the big society and flush out Her Majesty’s Government’s thinking about how we are going to rebuild society. I emphasise the “how” because I am temperamentally suspicious of abstract nouns. What is “big society” shorthand for? Let me offer a simple translation into verbs. Are we here to get what we want or what we need for ourselves from each other or from them, or are we here primarily to learn how to give things to each other? Can we use this opportunity to look at the way in which we build our relationships, rather than at the mechanics of the levers of power?
Political parties of every hue have sought to win voters—or should we name it and say “bribe” voters?—by promising them things that they would get. Everyone assumes that the principal motive—if not the only one—is personal advantage or greed and that what each of us is interested in most is “me, me, me”. Two things follow from that. The first is that people become the kind of people they are treated as being—we have become a nation of self-centred consumers. Secondly, in a large-scale operation removed from the local, the personal and the particular, people feel that they are no more than cogs in a machine or statistics on a spreadsheet—they have no sense of being valued for who they are as persons in community; they are valued only for what they do or contribute.
Is this the only way? Are we to go on colluding with the assumption that the people of our country are either too stupid or too selfish to be treated in any other way? Think of what happens when snow falls and the ordinary patterns of life are disrupted. When that happens, people notice what others need of them and rather enjoy the opportunities offered to spend some time and effort on helping those who are in difficulties. In the aftermath of local disasters, be they flash floods or tragic shootings, we experience people and communities taken out of themselves, rising to the challenge and thinking first of others who are in need.
This is, of course, happening all the time—day by day, in every community, people are behaving like this—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, in the pages of MBEs in the Honours List you can read of the huge range of things that people are doing. This is just the tip of a huge iceberg of selfless good will, but it does not make news—it does not sell newspapers. None the less, will it become the currency of our new coalition Government? As I understand it, each of the two political parties that now form the one Government has had to learn to give rather than to get in order to offer us a new way of being. Is this consciously modelling for us how they invite us to behave?
I am not so naive as to imagine that all this could happen overnight or to think that it can be imposed in a top-down way; we have to grow this pattern of belonging from the roots. For example, in my part of the country—most of Dorset and Wiltshire and a good mix of rather large urban and deeply rural communities—we called together some 80 representatives last November from every part of life. They were from business and finance, education and health services, the voluntary sector and the churches. There were local government politicians and officers, MPs and sixth-formers. We invited them to consult with us about what a common life could be and what would be the currency of this common life. What we found was a remarkable consensus. It was generally agreed across this very wide group that we had to be more engaged, understanding the choices that need to be made, taking some responsibility for being involved in them and giving our leaders permission to make them and take them. Secondly, we must be prepared to be less reliant on state provision, not living beyond our means, and continuing to care better for the environment. Thirdly, we need to live in a more social, altruistic way. Since then, we have been working together on how to enable people to be the people whom they say they want to be and to create the future that they say they want.
We have now forged an agreed tool in a facilitated negotiation process to be offered by the church, which will engage people from varying parts of society and from all types of human enterprise in Dorset and Wiltshire. It is aimed at developing a values-based and values-led strategic planning for the building and strengthening of local community and the common good. Based on a one-day or two-day conversation, the model will then move beyond consultation by encouraging participants to articulate the values that motivate them and then, to get further than a wish list for a particular issue, by negotiating values-based solutions not only towards which participants agree to work but which include mutually ensured accountability.
We are in the process of identifying a particular issue in each county that can act as a pilot for this process in the near future, confident that it will empower local people to work together to shape the common wealth. We hope to offer it as a tool, both to communities and to the new Government, as part of its big society initiative. Here is a very practical way in which we hope to be able to offer something that will change the way in which we do things: not just what we do but—again the adverbs—the way in which we do it. This is something concrete that the faith communities, the Church of England in particular, could offer to the nation and the Government through our presence, as my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London said, in every corner of the land, and through our well practised experience of drawing together people from every stratum of society.
We recognise that it may not be possible to agree shared values and that limits of consensus have to be faced. There is a place for disagreement and, indeed, conflict, but there is no doubt that locally there is a will to create a common language, to foster trust and mutuality and to focus on facilitating hospitality and relationship—on how we work together and on the quality of relationships—rather than on tightly regulated and dogmatic programmes, as a means of arriving at a fresh approach to the problems facing us.
I hope that the Government’s vision for a big society is going to be about the adverbs—the values that determine how we work together—and not just a thin veil for a cost-cutting exercise. I greatly look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution to this debate and what vision Her Majesty’s Government have for building, sustaining and enlarging the trusting partnerships that alone will create anything worthy of the name of society—a mutual bond of care, well-being and abundant life.
An invitation to give, rather than feeding the compulsion to get, is what will capture the imagination especially of the young, who have such energy and commitment to our future. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said, that is how people get their confidence to act, not by being told what to do or being invited to contribute. People have to experience doing it. That is what grows their confidence. Only if they are trusted to do it does this take place and it is that basis of trust between people and communities that will add up to a big picture and a big society. Unless it is based and rooted entirely locally, however, and at a level where relationships really count, nothing whatever will happen except hot air.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for having sought this debate. It is timely, appropriate and particularly relevant. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Wei: an intervening duty prevented me from getting into the Chamber, but from the shadows I listened carefully to what he had to say and found it inspiring. If he lives to be the oldest Peer in this Chamber, he will contribute a great deal during that time.
I am sadly aware not just that our nation now tries to survive on compromised ethical values, so that it appears to be almost improper to acknowledge the basis of our moral values, but that individual, family and community expectations have escalated too far beyond what is good and necessary for a happy and stable society. After 27 years in Parliament, I think that I know why, how and from where much of the problem derives. It is basically because what should be a Government of the people has now become a Government for the people. Government—this was particularly evident during 13 years of new Labour, but it does not apply exclusively to any single party—has become largely a cabal of detached intellectuals whose reason tells them that they know what is best for everyone else and who would be content to have what I will call a United Kingdom that is totalitarian in effect and authoritarian in nature. Some would seek to cover that objective with the euphemism “a nanny state”, but that is too simple and very dangerous.
For some reason, the previous Government had resolved that discrimination was wrong and that all society should be tarred with the same broad brush. As a result, we should become little more than computerised numbers; we should carry identity cards; we should all be seen as potential child abusers and be vetted if we regularly drive our grandchildren and their pals to and from school; and we should be subjected to potentially 42 days’ interrogation if under suspicion. Just yesterday, it was ordained that, if parliamentary colleagues and I were to have a preview of the Saville report, we should be prepared to submit ourselves to what was literally five hours’ house arrest. What folly; what an insult; what an incentive for one simply to surrender to the idea that as individuals we no longer have responsibility to make judgments or set personal standards but should merely go with the flow.
In your Lordships’ House, we have already nullified some of the greater aberrations of the previous Government, but why is all this happening in the first place? However bright and intellectually competent our elected colleagues in the other place may be, too many of them have virtually no concept of “of the people”. It was decided some years ago that your Lordships’ House should not be dominated by a single stratum of society. After 18 years’ experience in another place and nine years here, I think that this House in its present form does a tolerably good job. I believe that, in our lives outside this House, we have, overall, more meaningful contact with society than have many of those in the other place. It is now about time that we had a critical look at how and why the other place has lost touch with society. As well as encouraging intellect and education—and, as a schoolmaster, I have respect for that—we must have experience. We cannot have a relationship between government and society when the greater part of government has never properly belonged to or participated among society, never done real jobs, never managed or organised and never served as an integral part of society.
My challenge to government is that, for every intellectual giant who comes to the Front Benches via Oxford or Cambridge, or wherever, there has to be another who comes from industry, from business, from the land, from the caring professions and from real hands-on experience and who is “of the people”. Only then can we begin to restore the partnership between government and civil society. If we had government that, like many of us in your Lordships’ House, knew the practicalities of evaluating things, running things and even understanding things that impact directly on society, we could stop administrating this country by expensive and faceless quangos, by committees and by minders, with their thousands of CCTV cameras, and become, once again, a proper democracy where leaders can be valued for their experience, judgment, observance of moral rectitude and practical responsibility. We have sadly gone so far in the opposite direction that it will take resolve, time and more than a modicum of common sense to achieve this. Can we start today?
I cannot speak about government and society without mentioning how personally hurt I was yesterday by the Saville report and the Government’s capitulation to what we saw on television last evening to be a well orchestrated hangover from a 30-year campaign of terrorism. Of the families of the 496 who died in 1972, over 97 per cent were ignored. The report lacked balance—3,720 died during the terrorist campaign, so the £192 million pounds spent on Saville represents a mere 0.37 per cent of the victims. I know that the Prime Minister tried valiantly to balance his remarks, but from my perspective 40 years of education is no substitute for 40 years of hands-on experience. For 99.6 per cent of those families, the Government’s identification with civil society was absent, just as was any apology from the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Deputy First Minister and one-time terrorist commander and killer, Martin McGuinness.
I conclude my remarks with a practical proposal that deals with one of the most pressing issues affecting the relationship between government and society—law and order and our escalating prison population. We now have over 85,000 in our prisons. I am glad that the right honourable Ken Clarke has recognised the extent of the problem. If I were to evaluate it in financial terms, I would point out that the £45,000 that it costs annually to keep a person in prison—maybe this comparison makes sense—is greater than it would cost me to send a grandchild to Eton for a year. Over 40 per cent of prisoners reoffend within five to six months of release from prison. These are the Government’s own figures.
On this issue, the Government are letting society down. The nub of the problem is largely that we have failed to differentiate between criminals and offenders. I shall define that. Criminals are those who, as a profession, dishonestly exploit society for a living, who virtually dictate what happens in our prisons and who dominate young offenders. My definition of “offender” is one who breaks the law through a deficit in his character, which may be, and often is, that he lacks proper communication skills—certainly that represents 25 per cent, some would say as high as 40 per cent, of our prison population. We send them to share the company of those who are dedicated to crime and then release them to a disorganised and inadequate lifestyle where their godfather mentors are able to exploit them further. According to Marina Kim on “Talking Politics”, in 2007-08 recidivism cost our economy more than £9.5 billion.
Rather than repeating myself, I refer to a speech that I made on 19 December 2008, at col. 334, when I proposed a clearly segregated two-tier prison system, where we would not provide the criminals with a steady stream of potential offenders but where we would accommodate offenders within a safer, protective system that allowed the probation service, social workers, families and communities to rediscover social responsibility, and where every pound spent—properly targeted and managed by a Minister who understood the nature of society—could make such a difference.
Today government and society seem to exist on different planes. We have allowed that to happen as we scrambled over one another to get a bigger and bigger share or control of the power of money when times were good. The chasm between government and civil society was not inevitable, but we allowed it to occur. Perhaps now, in more straitened times, we can grasp the opportunity to pause and consider how we can effectively restore the ethos of decency and responsibility and bring a greater degree of humanity back to our relationships.
My Lords, this debate is about partnerships. What does the word “partner” conjure up in your Lordships’ minds—a business partner, a transient dancing partner or perhaps a serious domestic companion? My wife detests being called my partner, and “domestic companion” refers only to our cat or our dog.
The dictionary defines a partner as a “sharer”, someone of equal standing in a relationship—not a wholly owned subsidiary or a camp follower but someone on an equal footing, a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, made at the beginning of the debate. When we speak on the Motion about partnerships between government and civil society, we must avoid any latent assumption that the Government are inevitably the senior partner or the managing director, the holding company that at the end of the day calls the shots. Perhaps the Motion would have been better worded the other way around: to call attention to the role of partnerships between civil society and government. Which is the more primary reality, society or government? Surely this society.
The various agencies of civil society should stand alongside the agencies of government, whether local or national—or big or small, for that matter. Partnerships on education illustrate the point. The churches, especially the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, have a major stake in our education system. The Church of England alone sponsors nearly 5,000 schools, and our schools and boards of education have many fine people working for them. We have great expertise. Head teachers, teachers and education officers welcome the wider partnership with government, but they sometimes feel that they are not taken as seriously as they deserve to be and that local education authorities regard themselves as the senior partners. Perhaps the same feelings surround academies. I chair the governing body of a newly formed academy, and for all the theoretical freedoms of the academy it can feel like quite a regulated environment, not so much by local government as by central government.
There is a prevailing sense in some areas of the media, particularly encouraged by vociferous secularists, that church schools are interlopers in the state system. Actually, considered as a matter of history, the state interloped on the original church provision. The churches should not feel the need to be defensive or compelled to explain and justify where we fit into the partnership that we have with the state in the provision of education. Our record speaks for itself, as generations of parents have acknowledged. I am quite sure that other faith communities will come to enrich the provision of education in our country, and they are already doing so. This is the case with the many newly founded academies that have sponsors with no religious foundation at all.
The growth in the size and power of government in recent decades is a complex phenomenon, as we have learnt already in the debate, with many factors and causes behind it. In the circumstances of modern western society, it is inevitable that government, central and local, will have an important and vital role, but Governments always need to know their limits and avoid the slide into an ever greater role in the lives of citizens. A key way would be through a commitment to work through partners and civil society not just functionally in delivering services but in the self-understanding of what makes for a mature and healthy society, as many speakers have emphasised. We can easily oscillate between the corporate power of the state and the rights and freedoms of the individual, flowing a little this way and that way between the two, but both depend on a multitude of intermediary bodies including and especially the family.
Politics is fundamentally about power, as events surrounding the recent election and the emergence of the coalition Government so clearly remind us. Most of the headlines in recent years have been about either power or wealth. The management of both are central to society and important, but our vision of society is deeply impoverished if we focus too much or too narrowly on the dialectic of power and wealth. Civilised society is about much more—about the virtues of altruism, love, mercy, beauty, truth and justice, which are not subsets of power and wealth. It is those virtues that lead to a civilised society, which government and private businesses will not easily sustain without the deep partnerships with the agencies and institutions of wider society.
Much is already happening in society but it does not make the news. It is not bad news; it just does not make the headlines. I turn for a moment to the role of faith communities in promoting the common good. A number of surveys have been conducted in recent years in various parts of the country. The north-west of England, where I come from, has taken a particular leading role. Ten years or so ago, the various denominations in the north-west got together and funded a full-time churches officer for the north-west specifically to promote the interaction of the churches with the various agencies of government. The post has been held by a very able Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor John Devine, and the Northwest Regional Development Agency recognised the potential of this appointment by providing office space while we provided all the salary costs.
For 10 years or more, he has tirelessly promoted partnership working between the churches and other faith communities in government at all levels with striking results. Several surveys have been conducted in the north-west, and they have revealed a wide range of activities sponsored by and centred on the various faith communities. The NWDA has supported that research. Steve Broomhead, the distinguished chief executive of the NWDA, said in the latest report published last autumn, Faith in England's Northwest:
“One key finding in our research has been the strength of faith communities, their buildings and volunteers, in areas of highest social need”.
That is a key finding. It is in the areas of highest social need, where the agencies of government find it hardest to deliver the services that are needed, that the faith communities are there on the ground and most able to work alongside those in need. It is non-governmental agencies, charities, that are best able to meet these needs.
I illustrate this briefly by reference to two or three examples where I have some personal involvement. These examples are not exclusively faith-based. Indeed, it is interesting that partnership working is often between faith communities and other agencies on the ground with a common interest, rather than others who share the perspective of the faith concerned. Take a major social priority to which several noble Lords have referred, including the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis: the rise in the prison population, with persistent reoffending as a major cause. The noble Lord, Lord Low, also touched on this in his speech. It is becoming clear that programmes of restorative justice have a key role to play in reducing reoffending and, beyond that, in re-establishing people in society.
In my diocese there is a young offender institution, Thorn Cross, where an excellent chaplain runs a Sycamore Tree Project. This was originally developed by the charity Prison Fellowship and it is the leading example of a restorative justice programme in this country. It takes the parable of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the crooked tax collector, as a model for raising victim awareness and helping prisoners to understand the dynamics of criminality and crime. Last year the course ran in no fewer than 36 prisons and involved nearly 2,000 prisoners. More than 90 per cent completed the course and were credited with level 1 credits in the Open College Network. Research that is being carried out at the University of Sheffield is beginning to show benefits in reduced reoffending. It will be interesting to see what the longer-term statistics and evidence show in this area. I could say more about the splendid work that is being done, but the key point is that a restorative justice programme is more likely to be effective if it is not run by the Government or the prison authorities but delivered by agencies of wider civil society. It makes it much more credible for the prisoners involved. Already, the funding for this sort of programme is a soft target when the prison budget is frozen. That point applies across many of these issues.
I provide another example, again from the margins of society where social need is greatest—work with homeless people. When I first became Bishop of Chester, each day two or three homeless people, or groups of people, would call at my house asking for a mug of tea and a sandwich. Today, there are one or two a month, if that. I rather miss the conversations that I used to have with these interesting people who regularly turned up at my door. The change has been made by the founding and development of a splendid charity, Chester Aid to the Homeless, which provides a range of services and support to homeless people. The charity has had some support from local government but has drawn most of its support from the wider community, including local churches. I declare an interest: my wife is now a director of Chester Aid to the Homeless. She took part last year in a sponsored sleep-out overnight in the depths of winter. I had to stay at home to attend to important duties with our domestic companions. Again, this excellent work is done most effectively—and more cost-effectively, too—by a charity that operates at arm’s length from the agencies of government but in partnership with them.
I could give many other examples, both sacred and secular, of the value—in every sense—of partnerships between wider society and government, especially in our support for those on the margins of society. In the current cost-cutting climate, these activities are soft targets. I hope that the Minister will reflect on this and comment on the Government’s approach to try to prevent local authorities simply diminishing the grants that are given and that multiply their value many times over due to the partnership relationships in which they stand. The wisest course would be to promote many of these partnerships, which are key to the development of the common good in our society.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for introducing this debate and my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Wei. As I follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, I wish to make a boxing analogy with regard to partnerships. If you get into a boxing ring as the most fleet of foot lightweight in the world and you meet a heavyweight, the heavyweight has to land only one punch. When we think about partnerships between the state and whoever, we should not forget that.
At this time in the evening, following the speeches of four right reverend Prelates and one most reverend Primate, it is difficult not to reflect a bit on how we have got to where we are. We probably would not have our democracy if it had not been for the Church of England. The way in which powerful institutions stood between the king and the people has got us to where we are. Sometimes when we get into all the detail, we forget how we got to where we are. Indeed, the Motion refers to “shaping social policy”. In saying that, it distinguishes between policy implementation and the creation of policy. It asks us to think a bit about directions of travel rather than detailed implementation. Probably 10 people can make a contribution to policy shaping whereas probably only one or two are very good at implementation. If one takes child poverty as just one example, it is easy to have a pretty clear idea about what you would like to do about it, but not so easy to achieve it. I wish to separate policy and implementation.
Many people have shaped social policy—classically, Charles Dickens, and later, Orwell. I interpose here that some of these people were romantics. Some of the comment on getting from romanticism to reality disregards the fact that the people who start these processes are very often romantics; for example, T S Eliot and, I suggest, Archbishop Temple. Then we come to perhaps the most outstanding shaper of social policy, Beveridge, and his 1942 report. Beveridge was a liberal public servant. All of the members of his team who wrote the 300-page report were civil servants.
Today, we have talked a lot about the big society and the shaping of social policy under it. Social policy has developed far beyond Beveridge. Some of the developments have been extremely beneficial and some of them much more questionable. Why has this happened? I suppose the principal reason is that science and technology have moved on, particularly medical knowledge. When we think of that, we need to remember that Governments do not control the pace of technological advance. I can remember 1942 and the excitement of the Beveridge report. We were then relatively poor; now we are relatively rich. Today, civil servants—like those who formed Beveridge’s team—are at a discount; advisers are at a premium and there are 170,000 registered charities. In today’s circumstances, who will get themselves heard and to whom should we listen?
These are complicated issues. I suppose that examples might include Frank Field. He could reasonably aspire to be a successor to Beveridge. We can then think of some of the institutions whose research and thinking we all admire, and which have been in existence for a considerable period—the King’s Fund on medical matters, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Howard League for Penal Reform. All are notable for their independence. I could add—I hope that I can add—the Church of England to that list. It is, I hope, also notable for its independence. Then there are the media, particularly the weeklies. There is much that we can absorb from their thinking, which is nothing to do with the detailed implementation of particular policies—although these institutions will of course comment upon that. However, they sit somewhat apart from the thrust of day-to-day activity.
Then there is implementation. As the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said, diversity is a wonderful thing, but it can become a muddle. When thinking about the way in which our social policy should develop, we could, if the right reverend Prelates will forgive me, be rebuilding the tower of Babel.
I offer these final thoughts about those to whom we need to listen. The best people to listen to are those who receive no taxpayers’ money and are genuinely independent. The institutions that I mentioned do not receive significant amounts of taxpayers’ money. Some are involved in small projects for which they are paid public money, but, in general, they are private and independent. I include among them university departments as well as the philosophers—even the unpopular ones; of course Mr Scruton immediately comes to mind—and the writers of today. They are the successors to Dickens, Orwell and TS Eliot.
Second best is when government come into it; they should come in at arm’s length, not with a partnership but with a contract, with clear terms of reference and transparent accountability. You cannot expect the state to act in the way that the Oxford English Dictionary defines a partnership, whereby you share equally in the profits and liabilities. I am sorry, but the state is not on for that. When the liabilities become too great, it will change the rules. Therefore, a much tougher relationship between the state and civil society, in which civil society stands up for itself and negotiates its side of each and every bargain, will serve us much better.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this important debate. I want the right reverend Prelates to know that I miss sitting behind them. I had made my home sitting at their backs, hoping that if God’s hand was at work, providing guidance to them as they participated in the House, it would spill over on to me and I would get a bit of spiritual intervention, too. I shall have to work harder for it now.
This debate is so important because it is about how the Government can work better with the public in the interests of our society as a whole—how we might build the good society. We are very lucky in Britain in that we are rich in social capital—those words have been used frequently in this debate. This is not a broken society. Our civil society is strong. Of course there has been a rise in materialism and narcissism, but people in Britain continue to volunteer in huge numbers to support many fine voluntary organisations, many of which have been mentioned. People run in marathons for charity. They hold car boot sales to raise funds for good causes. They take part in red nose days and wear ribbons for cancer or AIDS. They sit as school governors, do prison visiting and read in schools with children who have learning disabilities. They take part in school races and run the school disco. They find funds by all manner of means in order to support things local. They coach teams and run football leagues. They also support and run soup kitchens for the homeless and care for the elderly. It is right—I say this with recognition—that many of their contributions are channelled through churches, synagogues, mosques and Quaker institutions, as well as through secular bodies and trade union organisations.
Good things are also done by professionals, and I was very happy to hear my noble friend Lady Perry speak about that. I feel that often professionals are not given recognition for the contribution that they make well beyond their daily round in giving pro bono work in various fields—in law, for example, the area in which I work. Teachers also do it by giving tuition and so on. People come together in many ways, even if it is just by signing petitions for better street lighting and more frequent bin collection. They send their savings to victims of tsunamis and want to end world poverty.
We in Britain are great creators of bonding social capital. By and large, we do not “bowl alone” as the social scientist, Robert Putnam, has described what happens in America. British people—particularly women—contribute enormously to our common weal. It is one of our nation’s really great strengths. However, as our societies change, we must endeavour to ensure that there is not just bonding social capital but also bridging social capital, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, our new addition, in his very fine maiden speech. Bridging social capital crosses between different communities so that the churches work with mosques, we have interfaith activities and organisations for women are about all women of every ethnicity. It also means that schools should, and must, be places where children learn with the young of other backgrounds. We have to find places and activities that bring together people from different and distinctive pools, and we have to find ways of preventing the atomisation that can break societies down. I am concerned by the idea of people going off and creating their own schools because, inevitably and invariably, those are likely to be about a narrowing down of bridging capital.
We must always remember to exercise caution when we talk about communities. Of course, we laud the good things in communities, but close communities can also harbour and nurture our worst behaviours, which were spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. I refer to a lack of forgiveness because of long-held grievances, and the ways in which tight communities can harbour intolerance, snobbery and repression. Inside communities there can be ill treatment of the less powerful, domestic violence, child abuse, forced marriage, hostility to homosexuals and antagonism towards the “other”. Opening out communities to other influences is what moves societies to become better places.
I am interested to know what the Government mean when they talk about the big society. I certainly welcome a strengthening of links between government and civil society in partnership. I like it when we can persuade people to join in. I also like the very independence of which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, spoke. It is important that a civil society is independent and does not have too much government crawling all over it. Therefore, I ask people to bear that in mind, too, when we talk about partnership. Civil society must not be drawn into the purview of government where the differences are not clear.
I do not want this big society to be a proxy for minimising the state so that less is done by the Government and they divest themselves of responsibilities for the poor and disadvantaged in our midst, for the disabled and the elderly, and for the asylum seeker and the drug addict. It would be an extreme folly if we were to see that happen. I am all for devolving central government to the local and, as a democracy reformer, I have argued for that. However, if going local means passing yet more responsibilities downwards without the necessary supporting revenues, it will be a travesty of ideas about local empowerment. Creating new burdens is not empowering.
I come from Glasgow. It is a wonderful city, but it is blighted. As my noble friend Lord Martin knows, a third of the population is on some form of welfare and three generations of some families have gone without work. Without debating how that came about, we should recognise the consequences. Health problems are endemic in my fair city. The average life expectancy for men is 54, which is lower than in some parts of the developing world. Glasgow Caledonian University has embarked on a most inspiring project, bringing the Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, to Scotland, to work with him on his ideas about microfinancing, establishing a community bank—a Grameen bank—and offering small loans to people who are normally excluded from the banking system. In the developing world the borrowers are usually women who organise themselves into groups of about five, creating a support system. They all put pressure on each other to ensure that a loan is repaid as they have all bought in to the system.
That draws on something in the culture of Scotland, which my noble friend Lord Martin can tell the House about. In my grandparents’ day, in tenement buildings there was something called “running a ménage”, which came from the French word ménager; it was a way of running household finances. Women in the tenement building would all contribute a small amount of money to the pot which could be used to buy children’s shoes or to pay for something that a family needed. That was the beginning of the notion of the trustee bank; we need a community banking system. In this banking crisis we need to find a way to redesign banking so that money can be lent to the poorest in our society so that they can embark on initiatives of their own invention in order to change their lives.
It is important to talk about the role of the state, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, did. What is seen as the great divider between the left and the right is the fact that the right argues for the small state and the left has always said that the state should be a deliverer of so much that is important in a good society. However, we would all probably agree that the state can be an enabler and a provider in the best sense, an expression of our collective desire to build a society where everyone has a responsibility for each other, by creating institutions and mechanisms to make society the best it can be, providing healthcare, education, security and well-being for everyone.
Getting the role of the state right is a challenge. The state can be oppressive and can impinge on our freedoms. It can denude us of autonomy and self-determination. Good governance lies in understanding balance and boundaries, where there should be state activism and where there should not. That is the challenge for governments of the right or left. Obviously, I have to speak to the House as a socialist. I believe that the state has considerable responsibilities in terms of the creation of the good society. I started my adult life with the socialist idealism which has been mentioned in this debate and, even now, at my great age, it still lives on in my bosom. I welcome ideas to find greater engagement for people, but I do not want us to unravel those nets which are so vital to the well-being of our poorest. Young people in this country are full of idealism and they should be tapped as a resource for this common project of making a good society.
When I first heard the words:
“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”,
they seemed to me to be a very good formula. We can advance that. It is not just about taxation and welfare, although I stick by that to this day; it is also about social solidarity and many other forms.
The next few years will be very testing for us as a nation. We are warned that there will be great austerity. Our values will be tested and I hope that those who have gained most from the past few decades shoulder a heavier burden than the poorest in our society. A just society requires that of us. I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving us this opportunity to speak about a very important method of partnering to make our world better.
My Lords, first, I add my voice to the many justified congratulations that the noble Lord, Lord Wei, has already received on his maiden speech. As someone who made his own maiden speech more recently than most in this Chamber, I think that I can probably share more than most the sense of euphoria and sheer relief that he is probably feeling at the moment. We all look forward to working with him—I certainly do—and it was good to hear the passion that he brought to the subject.
In my maiden speech, I drew attention to my belief that our public services need to be radically reformed if we are to provide better services at less cost, which is the challenge that we face not just in the next year but probably for the next decade. As part of that reform, I suggested that the public sector needs to regard civil society as a genuine partner in the development of social policy, so I, too, am delighted to be able to return to this issue so quickly, courtesy of the debate initiated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, and hugely encouraged by what I have heard today.
At the moment, the reality is that civil society in all its organised forms is sometimes seen by government, national and local, as a convenient agent for delivering pre-defined policy—convenient sometimes, it must be said, because it is easier to remove the resource from civil society than from the statutory sector and easier sometimes to expect civil society to deliver with less resources than the statutory sector would have needed. It is far less frequently seen as a partner in the development of policy at an early stage. That is where I would like to intervene in this debate. The lack of involvement of civil society at an early stage is regrettable for several reasons. First, civil society has, over time, been responsible for many important social policy innovations. I think of restorative justice as an important current example. At a time when we need innovative thinking perhaps more than ever before, the statutory sector should see the value of involving civil society, the voluntary sector and their representatives in the co-design of policy, not just in its later delivery.
That involvement is important also because those active in civil society are usually closer to local communities than the statutory sector, much more able to identify early the developing issues which need to be addressed, sometimes by Government. They are also much more likely to be able to identify first the problems which existing policy is creating, and therefore the need for legislative or regulatory adjustment. Let us not forget that they are often the first to identify unnecessary expenditure—waste—and deserve to be listened to for that reason as well.
Those active in civil society are also in a better position than most to see people's problems in the round and to understand the need for them to be addressed not in departmental silos, which still too often exist, but in a coherent way, with policies built around clients and their needs, not around the needs and priorities of departments and local authorities. We know that too many families in this country are receiving support from five, six or seven different statutory agencies. We need to involve civil society in bringing some sense to that problem, highlighting it and ensuring that it is tackled. Finally—and perhaps this has not been mentioned tonight—civil society can also play an important part in winning the support of individuals, communities and citizens for new policy if they have an understanding of why a policy is thought necessary and if they have been involved—perhaps played a part—in its design.
For all these reasons, not involving civil society in early policy discussions is a missed opportunity. The question therefore is: why are such partnerships still too rare? What can we do to change that? There are several reasons why they are too rare. Perhaps one is that in the recent past we have sometimes rushed to policy. We have left ourselves too little time to allow relevant interests to be involved and to hear different voices and voices closer to our various communities. Perhaps we should think about whether a more considered approach to policy would be timely, an approach based more on available evidence and diverse voices than on dogma.
Perhaps there are concerns from the statutory sector on occasions about whether confidentiality, where necessary, will be respected if civil society and the voluntary sector are involved in early-stage discussions. That was an argument put to me when I was leading a large statutory-sector organisation as chief executive of the Benefits Agency and when I was a Permanent Secretary. My experience was that the voluntary sector understood the benefits of being involved at an early stage and was loath to abuse that and, consequently, to lose future opportunities to influence policy development. I found that, even in difficult situations, if it was trusted, the voluntary sector would respond to that trust. There is a tendency for those of us who spend a long time working in government to be too secretive, too often. Perhaps we should be more open. We should open up the policy development process a good deal more than we have in the recent past. Sometimes, regrettably, there has also been a certain arrogance at play within the statutory sector. There has been a sense that somehow civil society and its representatives were less able. When I chaired quite large major charitable organisations, I sensed that to be the case. Government departments seemed to know that they knew best.
The most important question, which has already been raised once or twice in this debate, is: what can we now do to ensure the development of a relationship that is built upon respect, trust and partnership? I shall offer three or four very practical—they could be thought trivial—examples of what could be done. I have deliberately chosen practical, low-key developments. First, let us have more opportunities and more encouragement for the best civil servants to spend significant time—not a day or a week—working in civil society so that they understand better the challenges of local communities and the organisations that are closest to them. Let us make more opportunities for those active in civil society to spend some time in government to influence the thinking and understand its workings so that they are in a better position to carry on influencing that thinking. When we review departments in future, let us pay more attention to their capacity to work in partnership with civil society and to the results of their attempts to do that. Let us continue to encourage civil servants, senior as well as junior, to offer themselves as volunteers in their communities. In fairness, a great deal of that already happens. But it really does need to be recognised and valued by senior managers. It might even be right to take into account that kind of activity when we are thinking about promotion of civil servants.
Those are just some very basic, practical things that we can do. I offer them because we can agree here that this partnership between government and civil society will make for better policy. We can encourage it. We can indulge in the rhetoric that we are all very good at. But rhetoric and encouragement will not alone make it happen. We need to find practical ways of making it the reality that it is not yet.
If we are going to change the balance between the power of the state and the people, which most of us have been saying today we want to do, then it is a time for practical working. It is a time for us to take action; and it really is quite urgent, because the challenges that we face as a society demand that change of balance.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wei, on his maiden speech. It is not so long ago that I had to make my maiden speech and I know how difficult it was. It was most enjoyable when I had finished. I look forward to hearing him again. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on obtaining this debate.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy mentioned my native Glasgow and I thought of the community-based housing associations there. As far as the debate going on at the moment is concerned, I just want to say that we as politicians sometimes tend to get trendy, and the trend now is that we should decentralise—we should not have anything to do with national government. I understand that I have only four minutes to speak, because I am speaking in what is called the gap, but I want to say this.
The community-based housing associations in Glasgow have saved some excellent, beautiful tenements that would have been destroyed by demolition. They have also built sheltered housing for the elderly and low-rent accommodation for young couples. That was done because the community formed a community-based housing association. The local authority co-operated by rehousing some of the tenants who could not be accommodated in the new accommodation. The central body, which was then known as the Housing Corporation, was a state organisation. So national government, local government and the community built a success. We had best watch that we do not just say, “Let’s keep national government out”.
I also think of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and his disablement legislation. Many of the people in my former constituency loved the idea of having mobility, either by car or public transport, because of that legislation, which was run nationally. I would not like to think that the situation was different in Glasgow and perhaps not so good in Blackpool or another part of the country. Everyone who is disabled should benefit universally and throughout the country.
I would also say this in the short time available to me. We should not write off the deprived communities in the various parts of our country. I have personal experience of deprived communities because of my involvement with my previous constituency, and I can tell you of a great kindness that was done to a lady in a district which I represented called Possilpark. Her family broke up—her husband left her—and she had to come and live in a deprived area. She had to do a flitting because she was so desperate. She had to move her bits and pieces several items at a time by public transport, and it was a great walk from the bus stop into that community. When the neighbours in this deprived community heard that, they said, “On your next bus journey I’ll be there to help you”. She said to me, “Mr Martin, I’m a grandmother now. My grandmother stayed in this community and I will not leave it. There’s a lot of goodness there”.
Let me speak about Sighthill, another community of which I am aware, and the goodness that is there. It is a great thing for people to talk and to churn out figures about how bad the health is of Glaswegians. But one of the reasons for that is that those who are affluent move outside and do nothing but criticise central Glasgow. They move out and they go in to work. I am guilty myself because I moved two miles up the road. But let us not forget that a lot of people in outer Glasgow do not take responsibility for what is happening in Glasgow itself.
The Sighthill multi-storey flats were built in good faith. Because of a government decision, asylum seekers, with all their problems and all the criticism that they have had from the press and other people from this area of Glasgow, were brought into the area. For years now, the local St Rollox Church of Scotland has turned its church hall into a reception centre for asylum seekers. Such kindness is amazing. I ask the Minister to consider getting people to go into some of these communities and I will be able to show her the kindness that is going on.
My Lords, I very much welcome this debate. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on his excellent and thoughtful opening speech. Like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wei, on his excellent maiden speech. He made some very kind remarks about your Lordships’ House. I do not want to disabuse him but he comes to the House probably as its youngest Member and I have been speculating in the light of the coalition’s agreement on reform of the House how long he is likely to remain a Member. Past history suggests that it will probably be quite a long time.
I also congratulate the Minister on her appointment. She has made a considerable impression on your Lordships’ House and I am very glad that she has been given such a senior responsibility in the Government. I know that we are all looking forward to her response to tonight’s debate.
Underpinning the debate has been the recognition of what civil society contributes to our nation. It is immense. It is one of our greatest strengths. For me, it is part of what being British is all about. Without civil society, government would be well nigh impossible. But I believe that, in our debate, there is a warning here for government. Civil society, however much it has to offer, cannot be a substitute for essential government action and intervention. As we prepare for draconian cuts in public expenditure, let me warn the Minister that simply to dump extra responsibilities on the third sector, without the resources to accept it, risks harming the most vulnerable in our society. Will the Minister assure me that she has no such intention?
There is so much to celebrate in civic society. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley for her leadership in this area in the past few years. Let us think of the extraordinary level of volunteering in this country. From individual carers to the hospital leagues of friends to sports clubs to youth groups—they are all dependent on dedicated volunteers.
In his extremely interesting speech, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, listed some of the most worrying signs about our society. Of course, the UK is not alone and we certainly cannot be complacent. I believe that the endeavours of volunteers up and down the country are a rather more positive sign of a healthy and vibrant country. In the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, we are not just a “me-me” society. I agree with my noble friend Lady Kennedy about our rich asset of social capital, as she described it—the potential idealism and the energy of young people—and with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who referred to the contribution of older people who often are the bedrock of our civil society.
I do not ignore the contribution of the church itself and those of other religions and faiths. We were reminded by the most reverend Primate that in our most vulnerable communities it is the vicars and ministers who still live among their flocks and who, as a result, speak with great authority. He also gave us a marvellous illustration of John Morgans’s work in Penrhys. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester spoke about 500 faith-based organisations in his own diocese, or in Chester, the role of the church in restorative justice. But it is not just faith-based organisations. Indeed, noble Lords will have received a pithy circular from the British Humanist Association to remind us that we must recognise the value of communities as a whole and the contribution that humanists as well as religious people make.
We had an interesting discussion about citizenship. My noble friend Lord Judd reminded us that citizenship is not to be confused with consumerism. The most reverend Primate talked about citizenship and on the need for people to be taken seriously, and argued for an active citizenship where the happiness of individuals is reflected in the happiness of their neighbours. I also warmed to the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, about individuals and communities; how they can sometimes achieve great things against all the odds and solve entrenched problems.
Nor, I would suggest, should we ignore the role of politics. Political parties may not be the most popular of institutions, but as we know here, they are comprised of thousands of volunteers who make a tremendous contribution to their local communities and our democratic health. They are the most visible sign of active citizenship.
What is the big society? A number of noble Lords have had a go at defining it. I, too, have read a number of Conservative Party papers that have been produced over the past year, but to be fair I am not sure that, having studied them carefully, I am all that much the wiser. Taking them at their face value, they seem to argue that the previous Government, the Government I was proud to be a member of, put too much faith in laws and regulation, and in so doing crowded out social responsibility and undermined communities. I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with that assessment. I would just say this to the noble Baroness: the minimum wage, equality legislation, and reform of the NHS. Yes, sometimes we did set a few targets and sometimes they were onerous, but I doubt very much indeed whether we would have virtually got rid of hospital waiting lists without action like that.
I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, in response to what I thought was a very interesting contribution, that, like the noble Lord, Lord Martin, I believe in the active state, but a state underpinned by democratic legitimacy and humanitarian values. It is about inclusiveness, as my noble friend Lord Judd said, and a sense of the empowerment of individuals and communities. What else is the Sure Start scheme there to do? Why did we develop the Pathways to Work projects for people who had been on incapacity benefit for a long time? To see the way in which people who have been away from work for years have been helped to go back to work has been one of the most uplifting experiences I have gone through. Surely that is an example of how the state can be active in helping and empowering people.
On the question of trust raised by the noble Baroness, I too have read and reread the Reith lectures of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and they are very profound, but I do not accept that my Government set out to undermine trust in professionals. What we attempted to do was to work with professionals in order to ensure that they were properly accountable for their actions. Would she argue that we should not have been concerned about the widespread differences in the clinical outcomes of clinicians, the widespread inequalities identified by my noble friend Lady Kennedy, or indeed the professional regulation of social workers? Did not the outcomes of the Victoria Climbié or Baby P cases show that you cannot leave it to professionals to police themselves; there has to be some external scrutiny as well?
There are proposals in the big society agenda for public sector reform which, I gather, aim to cut costs, improve standards and encourage social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups to take on service provision. However, the previous Government did much to enhance the role of the third sector, as my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley outlined. As to the policy of empowering consumers and enabling parents to start new schools, communities to take on local amenities, such as parks and libraries, under threat, and putting neighbourhoods in charge of the planning system, of course some interesting projects and ideas will come through which are worthy of support. However, my noble friend Lord Patel put to the Minister some very pertinent questions. Will these groups be able to provide the necessary year-in year-out services? How will you prevent gross unevenness in provision or planning decisions?
On the issue of planning, I have put my former energy hat on and I am thinking of wind farms. How will the Government deal with the conflict that at a national level you have—and I am sure will continue to have—targets for renewable energy while empowering local groups to make decisions that will prevent the wind farms being built? That is one of the essential tensions that the Government will need to answer.
In regard to the poorest communities, how do you prevent this kind of action creaming off services and people? How do you prevent vested interests taking over, as the noble Lord, Lord Wei, reminded us? The noble Lord, Lord Low, identified perhaps some of the most important questions in any renegotiation of the boundaries between the state and civil society. My noble friend Lord Judd worried about voluntary organisations being seduced from being a catalyst in society for change to one of being hidebound by the cares of providing services. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, spelled out some of the risks arising from a loss of voluntarism and my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley worried about a loss of innovation and advocacy capacity.
Again, as my noble friend Lord Patel asked, where will the resources come from? We are promised a big society bank to provide funding for independent intermediary bodies—it will be there to help generate extra millions of pounds—but what if the resources are not generated sufficiently to enable these organisations to pick up any gap left by the Government? We need to know the answer to that.
In considering the role of government and the role of civil society, a number of noble Lords mentioned Beveridge. We should remember what the provision of healthcare was like in society before the foundation of the NHS. It was a rag bag of local authority, voluntary and private sector provision; it had patchy services and the cost of being ill was dreaded by many people. The NHS was created to change that. It is the most visible sign of government intervention and we are the richer for it.
Yes, civil society has much to offer; and yes, the boundaries between government and civil society will change. I am happy for civil society’s role to grow, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, in a partnership of equals. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that more needs to be done to persuade statutory organisations of what civil society can bring to the table. He put forward some excellent ideas and I hope the noble Baroness will agree to look at them. However, whatever the potential of civil society, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, in the end state support will be essential too in order to protect those who need protection.
Of all the questions put to the noble Baroness in this debate, the one she must answer is this: what do the Government believe is the role of the state? I hope she will agree that, whatever the potential of the big society or of civil society, ultimately there is a role for government.
I thank noble Lords for an interesting, inspiring, broad-ranging and, at times, challenging debate. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Wei has chosen this debate to make his maiden speech. Your Lordships will agree that it was a passionate speech, both insightful and inspiring. Although my noble friend refers to his youth and has taken the mantle of the youngest Member of your Lordships’ House from me, I must say that his experience will add much to debates and I am privileged to have him on our Benches.
As has been clear throughout, our country relies on a bedrock of voluntary and community organisations, and social enterprises. These organisations deliver services to families and individuals, provide support and advice to those in difficulty, organise community activities, look out for the young and vulnerable, and carry out a huge range of other roles, some referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn.
Some of this is motivated by faith, and some by different issues. Without these organisations and the individuals who are part of them, we would be a much poorer and weaker society. I would like to pay tribute today to all those millions of people who contribute to their communities, working tirelessly for the benefit of others, helping to hold communities together, often without expecting any reward for themselves. I include in that Members of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke of public service. I pay tribute to his extensive public service, whether through Oxfam, the YMCA, or his other numerous roles, and to the huge value added by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, in her work.
Many organisations in the voluntary and community sector, charities and social enterprises, have a track record of supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They work with families facing financial difficulties, the homeless, those struggling with addiction, people stuck in a cycle of offending or unemployment, and much more listed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. While government agencies may be searching for the answers, in many cases voluntary and community sector organisations or social enterprises have already found ways to offer effective and lasting support and help. The Government need to support these organisations to help them grow and flourish. Too often we find that it is government rules and regulations that are standing in the way of progress.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the concern of organisations which face problems with uncertain funding. Other organisations feel confused and uncertain about CRB checks, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and I will take back the very practical suggestions made by my noble friend Lady Byford. There are organisations which feel burdened by government mismanagement and micromanagement, and struggle with unnecessary bureaucracy. All of this wastes time and resources, and crucially saps energy and drive, which are the life-blood of this sector.
This Government will build a new partnership with civil society—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London calls it a rebalancing—freeing organisations from burdensome rules and regulations that prevent them from doing their jobs and put these organisations in the driving seat, rather than assuming that government knows best, and stop unnecessary interference from government. This new partnership with civil society is part of this Government’s broader commitment to building the big society. This Government believe in giving power and responsibility to individuals and communities. They will reverse the trend of assuming government knows best and has all the answers to society’s problems. My noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark referred to a suspicion and lack of trust. I thank her for laying out in detail the philosophical thinking behind her presentation. Indeed, we will give individuals and communities more freedom to act, to take responsibility and to do what is right in their area.
This Government will stand back from trying to do everything themselves, allowing local people and organisations to step forward. In practice, this will mean that voluntary and community organisations, charities and social enterprises will have more opportunities to win contracts to deliver public services. Local communities will be able to take over running local facilities, like community centres or post offices. Decision-making power will be devolved to local areas, away from the increased centralisation that we have seen in recent years. There will also be increased transparency about what is being achieved—for example, the publication of detailed local crime data every month for local areas so that the public can have proper information and statistics about crime in their neighbourhoods and hold the police to account.
To help build the big society, this Government have committed to actions in five key areas. The first is giving communities more power; for example, through reforming the planning system, we will give neighbourhoods more ability to shape their local area and we will give new powers to help local communities save local facilities. The second area is encouraging people to take an active role in their neighbourhoods; for example, we will support a national day to celebrate community action and we will do more to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy. Thirdly, we will radically shift power away from central government to local communities. We will also deliver a major devolution of power and financial autonomy to local government.
Fourthly, we will support co-operatives, mutuals, faith groups, charities and social enterprises by enabling them to have greater involvement in delivering public services, and we will give public sector workers the right to form employee-owned co-operatives. Fifthly, we will publish government data: for example, through legislating to create a new right to data so that government-held datasets can be accessed and used by the public. As a contribution to this, the Prime Minister has said that all new tender documents for central government contracts worth more than £10,000 will be published on a free public website from September this year. From next year, details of all new central government contracts will be published in full.
This Government are committed to building a partnership with civil society. To demonstrate this commitment, we have announced specific plans that will contribute to the big society. For example, we will launch a big society bank using funds from dormant bank accounts. It will provide new finance for organisations, creating a positive impact in their communities. The big society bank will work through intermediary bodies with a track record of supporting and growing social entrepreneurship. Setting up the big society bank is a priority for the Government. The launch of the bank is linked to the timescale for implementing the dormant accounts scheme. We are working with banks and building societies, the FSA and The Co-operative Financial Services to ensure that the reclaim fund is in operation as soon as possible. Further announcements will follow later this year.
We will also support a network of community organisers who will lead and co-ordinate work in their area to help local people work together to make their community a better place to live. This will build on existing successful models of community organisers in the UK and elsewhere. Community organisers will act as local catalysts, mobilisers and enablers to help galvanise change. They will be individuals with a strong connection to the local community and will work with fellow residents to create a strong and participative community. I hope that some of the past concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Low, about retrenchment of the state and about whether society would fill the gap will be met by our commitment to the role of community organisers. We accept that it cannot be left to chance. Therefore, the Cabinet Office will make further announcements about this programme later this year.
We will also provide a programme of neighbourhood grants to provide small amounts of funding to support social action by new or existing community groups. The grants will be available in the most deprived areas, neighbourhoods, estates and wards in England. Those among other things will support the new initiatives and charities on which my noble friend Lady Byford wanted assurances. Areas will be announced in autumn 2010 and the grants will be available from spring 2011.
We will also shortly set up a taskforce to cut unnecessary red tape in order to free up the voluntary sector as far as possible. The taskforce will look at ways to reduce the bureaucratic burden on the sector, particularly on small organisations. That will include, for example, looking at the form-filling around gift aid. The Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will set up the taskforce, which will include leading figures from the voluntary sector.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester asked how government would adhere to the principle of evidence. Evidence is of great importance in public policy—for example, in the targets referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. However, the demand for evidence must be proportionate, and I know that it has been felt as a burden by many in the voluntary sector. This is a Government who are committed to removing burdens from that sector. The ultimate aim of the big society is for it to be communities and not government who are in the driving seat in holding services to account.
We will launch a new National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16 year-olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, to mix with people from different backgrounds, and to start getting involved in their communities. This will enable young people to have a shared experience as they pass into adulthood.
The National Citizen Service will draw on what has been learnt from successful pilots run by independent charities over the last four and a half years in London, Wales and the north-west for young people from a diverse range of backgrounds. These pilots were funded by £2 million which the Conservative Party helped to raise while in opposition. Full details of this programme will be announced by the Cabinet Office later this year, with a launch expected in 2011.
I shall say a few words about faith communities and their role in the big society. This afternoon, a number of noble Lords have rightly highlighted the huge contribution that different faith groups make to our communities, and to the well-being of our society as a whole. The point has been well made that the Government need to welcome and value this involvement, and look to make use of the significant potential of faith groups in helping build the big society. I agree with these comments, and want to offer a warm welcome to faith groups to play a full part in the big society. I welcome the big offer, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London called it, which I shall take back to my colleagues with enthusiasm. He may be aware that the Government are already in discussions with the church as to what co-operation will be possible. I recognise the church’s centuries-long commitment to the welfare of all people in their parish.
I shall make it absolutely clear that we will not ask faith groups to conceal their beliefs, since we know that it is often their religious faith that is the driver of their social action. That said, we will expect services to be delivered equally and impartially on the basis of need. I make a specific point about the church. Historically, Christianity has been the bedrock of our society, and we have only to look at the work of the church throughout our history to see the phenomenal contribution it has made.
In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on education, this Government agree wholeheartedly that the education system must give every child the opportunity to flourish. That is why we are taking radical steps to allow parents, charities, educational groups and teachers to establish new schools when they are not satisfied with the schools directly in their area. That contribution is not just a historical contribution but lives on today through thousands of Christian-based organisations—for example, the Children’s Society and the Passage in Westminster. Then there are the examples given so well by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. He makes a very powerful point when he speaks of the benefits being delivered at arm’s length to government. We recognise, cherish and value this work and the ongoing contribution that it makes.
The big question, which has been raised by many noble Lords today, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, is—what is the big society? It is a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility, in which people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities and in which the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control. My noble friend referred to it as “them’s are us”. In Yorkshire we call it “doing your bit”. There are many definitions that we could give. The noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, asked the same question. No one would disagree that there is a tremendous amount of work being done, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Many actually doing the work would say that it is being done despite the challenges presented by the previous Government. The noble Lord himself mentioned the problems with small organisations unable to access funds because of bureaucracy.
Another question raised on many occasions in this debate is whether the big society is a veil for cuts. Are we, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, put it, simply going to dump responsibilities in that way? Let me answer that question very clearly. It is a simple “no”. The next few years will be tough for all, and the effects of the current financial situation will be felt in every tier of society, but we will ensure that the financial pressures do not lead to unnecessary cuts in services to those who need them most. Those services do not necessarily have to be delivered by the state, however. We want to see greater transparency and access to funding and fairer funding deals, as well as longer-term grants and contracts based on outcomes for those organisations that can demonstrate improved outcomes for society.
My Lords, the Minister speaks with tremendous passion about society moving in to take a more active role in social provision. Will she speak with the same passion about the Government’s determination that in areas of deprivation, where there is little aspiration among people, they will be equally committed to ensuring that those people are never left as second-class citizens in our society?
My Lords, I think that all of us in this House will agree with what the noble Lord has said. In many areas where there has been huge deprivation in the past, and where I will say that the previous Government committed funds, we still find that there is a lack of social capital, so that improvements have not been made that could have been. That is why those will be the very communities that will benefit the most from the big society initiative.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions today. I thank in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for initiating this debate and other noble Lords for interesting additions—the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and his speech on betrayal, the robust intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, and the practical suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. Some of the noble Lord’s suggestions are being introduced in the Civil Service at the moment, but I take on board his suggestion for that to be more extensive and for it to overlap between the Civil Service and civil society, to be deeper and for longer.
The breadth and quality of this discussion have given us some flavour of the importance and value of an effective partnership between government and civil society. The issues raised have also shown us the urgency with which the Government must work to build this partnership. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for giving his words of support, having outlined the numerous challenges that we face in Britain today. I take on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said; I agree with her that the partnership must not suffocate. My colleagues and I look forward to continuing to work with inspiring, energetic and innovative individuals and organisations to start to deliver the big society vision.
My Lords, we have had a remarkable, rich and lively debate and I will not detain your Lordships more than a few moments at this point. I am sure we would all agree that this has been as distinguished, creative and well-informed as we could have wished. We are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, for his remarkable maiden speech and the Minister for a full and clear response. I thank everyone who has taken part.
A number of significant themes have emerged. We will not rehearse them all now, but at the heart of them has been a clear and ringing reminder of the great strength of civil society in this country. It reminds us of something right at the heart of our national character—the extraordinary people giving extraordinarily of their time, energy and vision for the sake of others.
We have also been given some significant warnings in this debate. The ones that occur to me are these. We have been warned about too narrow a focus on economic growth rather than the quality of relationships. We have been warned about too much attention to proceduralism. We have been reminded of the real cost of volunteering and the need for the conditions of its flourishing, as based fundamentally on the building up of trust. We have been reminded of the profound need for creating the right conditions for a flourishing volunteer society, and the warning not to let this debate become a proxy for another debate about the need or otherwise for cuts.
Above all, we have been helpfully reminded of the capacity of this House to address with distinction some of the most significant issues of our day. My sense is that we have begun to set a direction for the new Government and I look forward with others to seeing how that direction is travelled in the months ahead. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.